MIAMI (CBSMiami/Herald) — The Miami-Dade School District is serious about combating child sex trafficking.

CBS4’s news partner The Miami Herald reports that, together with federal agencies, law enforcement, and social service groups, the district recently launched an awareness campaign to prevent school-age kids from being lured into prostitution.

They have good reason for concern.

Last week, four Miami-Dade men were arrested for allegedly recruiting foster children from a group home to work at a Homestead brothel.

Some days, the foster girls would arrive at school, text or call their pimps to pick them up and ditch class for the brothel.

One of the girls, 14, was familiar with the spot, so her 16-year-old cousin agreed to go. At the house-turned-club, the older teen saw two other girls from school. There was dancing and alcohol, but it was not a regular teenage bash.

It was a brothel, federal prosecutors say. That night in April 2011, the 16-year-old girl had sex with three men, danced for tips and got paid $240 before she left at dawn.

So how does this happen?

Federal authorities say pimps manipulate other students to act as their recruiters on school grounds.

“A 20-odd-year-old person can’t have ready access to a high school or middle school or junior high, but if they recruit some boys to recruit on their behalf by offering them money or drugs, this is some of the evidence we’re starting to see,” said Carmen Pino, an assistant special agent in charge of the human-trafficking division with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

To prevent this, the district’s awareness campaign has a multi-armed approach.

First, the district placed need-to-know information on its website for teachers and parents. Second, teachers and administrators received a briefing on human trafficking, including whom to call and how to identify warning signs.

Some of the warning signs a child might be a victim of human trafficking include unexplained absences and difficulty in attending school on a regular basis, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“When a child doesn’t show up, and we send out a Connect Ed message, and the teacher sends out a letter, and we don’t hear from a child for two or three days, and we haven’t heard from a parent that the child is sick at home, I think it behooves us as administrators and teachers to take the next step — to find out why,” said Miami-Dade School Board Vice Chairman Lawrence Feldman, who proposed the new campaign.

When a student is absent, school employees try several ways to find out why: through Connect Ed messages, parent contact, home visits and parent conferences, said John Schuster, district spokesman.

“It is our responsibility to be as smart and aware on social issues as we are with curriculum. It’s part of our job, and it should be part of our forefront to do whatever we can do to make sure kids are safe,” said Feldman.

Feldman said he expects the program to be an ongoing effort.

The campaign involves several partners, including Kristi House, aMiamihome that supports abuse victims; ICE; the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes law enforcement agencies, safety groups and nonprofits from all overSouth Florida. Kristi House helped put together information for principals and is expected to help create more professional development for school employees. The task force is also working on a community presentation, said Barbara Martinez, a federal prosecutor and coordinator for the task force.

Martinez said Florida is a hub of human trafficking of all kinds, including adults and workers. Every year, her office handles 8-12 such cases, most of them involving the domestic sex trafficking of minors.

Martinez said the traffickers target vulnerable children, including those in foster care, runaways and kids who are still living with their parents or have only left home for a short time — a new trend that has emerged over the past few years.

(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald contributed material for this report.)


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