GAUTIER, MS (WLOX) - Prostitution and forced labor in South Mississippi are now part of the lesson plan at Gautier Middle School. On Tuesday, about 200-students heard from an organization that raises awareness about human trafficking. The program is changing the students' minds about modern-day slavery.
"How many of y'all have Facebook?" the speaker asked the students.
Hands immediately shot up. It showed just how popular social media sites are with the teens in the class. But, there's a scary side to all that technology.
"The internet is the way a majority of the kids are being lured," the speaker told them.
For the first time, an investigator with Advocates for Freedom shared the organization's new curriculum on human trafficking. He spoke to the female students in the Health and PE classes at Gautier Middle School about the dangers of prostitution, pornography, and forced labor. The investigator asked not to be identified because he does undercover work.
"It's a scary thing for them. They're like, 'Oh my God, I can actually be taken from my family? I won't be able to see my friends?' And when they realize there are cruel people in this world that want to take advantage of them, no matter how young they are, it's pretty eye opening to them," he said.
He showed video clips with different scenarios of how easy young people can be forced, tricked or manipulated into modern-day slavery. He held up a Mardi Grad bead with 100 little balls. He then pointed to five containers of beads to represent the 100,000-300,000 people who are lured into human trafficking in the U.S. every year. The average age of the victims is 12.
"It shocked me because they're really young and they're the ones that do post that stuff on Facebook. So there's going to be a lot of them targeted," said 7th grader Anna Burke.
"I was sitting over there just thinking this could happen to me. This could happen to my best friend," said 7th grader Skyler Fraser.
"I didn't even know he said it can happen and it was happening at a place in Pascagoula and the coast, that was a big shock," said 7th grader Ashlyn Kelly.
The students learned what not to post online and share on their phones and how to spot the warning signs so they won't fall victim to pimps and stalkers.
"It's basically slavery and I think it's horrible and I think people should be more aware of it. It's great that we had speakers come in and talk about it," said Ashlyn.
"Kids 12-14, both girls and boys, are the number one target. We're trying to get them to be aware of their surroundings, avoid talking to perfect strangers, and get them to realize it can happen to you," said the investigator. "To me, it means there will be one less victim, one less girl that I'll have to rescue or one less parent that has to go through this nightmare of not knowing where their kid is."
Since it formed in 2011, Advocates for Freedom has helped 109 victims of human trafficking all over the state. The founder told WLOX News most of them are from South Mississippi.
To report suspected cases of human trafficking, you can call the national hotline at (888) 3737-888 or text "BE FREE" (233-733).