Kent ISD, nonprofits land grant

Partners will leverage $1.5M in human trafficking prevention funds.
Rachel VerWys

Kent Intermediate School District recently received a federal grant it is using in coordination with a local coalition to increase human trafficking prevention efforts in Kent County.

The $1.5 million Human Trafficking Youth Prevention Education (HTYPE) Demonstration Program grant Kent ISD received in October is one of eight nationally from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Trafficking in Persons.

In partnership with the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition, Kent ISD will work with coalition member nonprofits Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE) and Wedgwood Christian Services on creating a safer community through prevention education to stop exploitation.

The collaborative, research-based initiative, in addition to training educators, will strive to enhance student protective factors, such as personal and online boundaries and empathy for others, while increasing student awareness and knowledge to recognize relationship red flags.

The coalition anticipates results including increased confidence in peer-to-peer prevention and safe reporting procedures in the community.

In phase one of the three-year initiative, implementation will be piloted in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in Wyoming, East Grand Rapids Public Schools and Kent ISD’s hybrid online school MySchool@Kent.

Kirsten Meyers, director of special education at Kent ISD, will be the grant coordinator. Kevin Polston, superintendent at Godfrey Lee, and Heidi Kattula, superintendent at East Grand Rapids, acted as champions in their districts for getting on board as the initial pilot schools.

“Human trafficking impacts all segments of our society, and through this grant, we want to raise awareness in the community, educate children, parents and educators on warning signs, and collaborate with community partners to eradicate trafficking from our community,” said Ron Caniff, superintendent, Kent ISD.

The Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition said the grant is especially timely now, as the pandemic has raised additional concerns about the vulnerability factors related to human trafficking and sexual exploitation for students.

As the pandemic continues to force the closure of some schools and other youth programming opportunities, the coalition has grown increasingly worried about youth in abusive, traumatic homes and situations that might otherwise be discovered by interactions with teachers, social workers or other youth development staff. Additionally, with increased online activity levels while more people stay home, online predators have more opportunities to prey on youngsters.

Rachel VerWys, co-creator and executive director of SEE, said the need for more prevention education in West Michigan existed before COVID-19, and this three-year initiative will give the coalition the opportunity to create school protocols that don’t yet exist for bolstering protective factors, in partnership with law enforcement.

“The coalition’s cross-sector leaders identified increased prevention education as a critical strategy to prevent human trafficking in our community because we see evidence of exploitation and gaps in protective factors for youth,” VerWys said. 

“This opportunity is grounded in collective ownership and a commitment toward achieving community-level outcomes to prevent, disrupt and end human trafficking. The collaborative opportunity to implement a comprehensive prevention program with educational leaders is a tremendous asset to our youth and entire community.”

VerWys said Kent ISD and the coalition will use a prevention curriculum developed by a California-based human trafficking forensic education and training organization, Prevention Organized To Educate Children on Trafficking (PROTECT). The advantage of going this route, rather than starting from scratch, she said, is that PROTECT already has data on the success of its approach from pre- and post-implementation testing it has done in multiple states.

Wedgwood Christian Services will serve as the lead training agency, assisting Kent ISD in building capacity to implement skills-based human trafficking prevention education and a school safety protocol.

“Wedgwood’s Manasseh Project has been on the front lines of providing treatment for young people who have experienced the trauma of exploitation and abuse related to trafficking since 2012,” said Nikeidra DeBarge, Manasseh Project coordinator.

“By joining forces with our partners, we have the opportunity to illuminate the issue of human trafficking in the spaces that are most relevant. … Our team is here for the challenge and the solution.”

SEE and the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition will act as the convening partner to bring together law enforcement and social service providers to facilitate the design of culturally responsive and trauma-informed prevention protocols.

Implementation of the HTYPE Demonstration Grant Program begins now and continues through 2023, and VerWys said the coalition intends to add more schools to its prevention education implementation rolls as time goes on.

VerWys said the entire coalition is grateful to be receiving more than a million dollars in help and resources from the federal government during a worldwide pandemic.

“What also strikes me is that our county (ISD) was able to write a grant during a time when the constraints on educational leaders are very real and very pressing, and this is going to bring important resources to try to prevent more harm and abuse from happening to youth,” she said.

“I’m really proud of our community collectively, which came together to write a grant during the pandemic and a school year that has been difficult in many ways. It shows we have leaders who are committed to our students and our whole community. Even in the midst of struggle, we have leaders who are thinking innovatively and willing to take steps forward to bring new resources to the community.”

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