Human trafficking: It’s not a common subject taught in high school, but at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, a group of students are making sure their peers know not just what trafficking is, but what they can do to help stop it.
Each year, the all-girls Catholic high school holds a day-long seminar on trafficking — also known as modern-day slavery — and invites a neighboring school, as well as area advocates, to join them in learning more about the issue from experts in the field. Throughout the year, the group of students works to engage their peers in action and education about the issue.
“For me, it all started freshman year when I got into Scholars here at Seton,” said Lauren Gomes, a junior.
The origin of the school’s involvement in the anti-trafficking movement is School President, Sr. Ellen Marie Hager. Sr. Ellen Marie, a Daughter of Charity, said her order made addressing human trafficking a priority in the mid-2000s. When she came to Elizabeth Seton High in 2009, she said she presented the subject to a group of top students known as “Scholars” and helped them to get involved in the anti-trafficking movement. Those Scholars, she said, took the issue and ran with it.
From hosting the day-long seminar each year, to doing special presentations to the student body, and individual advocacy both online and in the community, the students at Seton High have become some of the area’s most outspoken voices against trafficking.
For 17-year-old junior Sophia Cooney, the subject touched her so much she decided to focus her Girl Scout Gold Award on combating human trafficking.
After showing videos and putting together a presentation for underclassmen to educate her peers on the issue, Sophia said she started a petition in 2018 to gather signatures asking the Maryland General Assembly to take meaningful action against trafficking. Trafficking, while mostly universally condemned, is something that Maryland law only partially criminalizes.
Sophia made it her mission to demonstrate to Maryland lawmakers the amount of community support there is for criminalizing all trafficking.
“Right now, labor trafficking is a misdemeanor in Maryland and the state is trying to make it a felony,” she said. A bill to criminalize labor trafficking failed to pass in 2018, so Sophia said sponsors are trying again to pass it in 2019. She hopes her petition can help move it over the finish line. Sophia presented her petition to her Senator, Douglas J.J. Peters (D-23) in February.
In addition to the petition, Sophia also organized a collection drive at the school to make care packages for individuals rescued from trafficking. She collected enough supplies to make 80 packages. To make sure those packages reached victims, the school partnered with The Samaritan Women Institute for Shelter Care, an organization that works to build a stronger, more stable landscape of providers serving survivors of human trafficking.
When victims are able to escape their traffickers, often they have nothing, said Lauren. The drive aimed to provide victims with some basic necessities like toiletries and clothing to help get them through that time of transition.
Lauren Gomes (left), Sophia Cooney (center) and Macy Granzow (right) are part of a group of students at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg that are working to combat human trafficking.
Macy Granzow, a junior, said once her fellow Scholars educate their peers about human trafficking, their classmates often inquire about what they can do.
Beyond signing Sophia’s petition or contributing to the care-package drive, Lauren said doing your part to combat trafficking can involve steps as small as learning the source of the goods you buy and ensuring the company making your clothes, food or other products doesn’t engage in trafficking.
“When you are about to buy those $5 leggings online, ask where those came from and if they were made through trafficking,” she said. “The first thing I do is research how their products are being produced: Do they use sweatshops, have they been exposed for using labor trafficking.”
Lauren said her parents are from Bangladesh and the amount of trafficking in their native country has made the issue something she is particularly passionate about addressing.
“The main reason I pay attention to companies that are offering cheaper pricing is because I can feel that connection with the victims who come from my parents’ country,” she said.
Taking steps to question the supply chain of the products we consume is not always easy, as not every company shares that information with consumers. And while some organizations are pushing for more disclosure about global supply chains, the girls say more needs to be done.
But the students also think education needs to start earlier and happen in public school as well.
Macy noted that the group watched a video that told the story of a young child who was trafficked. While the subject matter might be difficult, the reality of trafficking is that it happens to children and teens, and it happens in Maryland.
“All of these details really matter on a big scale,” Macy said. “We need to get the word out to all Catholic and non-Catholic schools.”
For Sr. Ellen Marie, listening to the girls talk about how their involvement in the anti-trafficking movement has grown beyond what is done in school, makes her smile.
“It makes me happy to hear what Lauren is saying about clothing,” she said, adding she was unaware the group was educating their peers on that level. “You don’t always know that you’re impacting them or getting them stirred up.”
What started for Lauren, Sophia, and Macy when they were freshmen will likely continue for each girl well beyond high school. All three said they can see themselves going on to continue working in the movement, continuing to speak up and educate on the issue even after graduation.
“I envision going to college and dedicating time to put an end to trafficking on a local level” Sophia said.
“Because slavery is not over,” Lauren added.
“It still exists,” Macy said.