Having had children and stepchildren in school during the 1970s and 1980s, I can certainly see a difference in the way things are after raising a granddaughter, now 17, since she was seven months old.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was in school, we sometimes got sent to the disciplinary office for chewing gum or wearing too-short skirts. Some of us even smoked a cigarette or two and got a suspension. (Yes, I said “us,” so I’m certainly not claiming to have been an angel at that age.)
Girls weren’t even allowed to wear pants on snow days in New Jersey where I grew up back then — only skirts, because even in public school, we were supposed to (at least) look and act like “ladies.”
Fast forward to the late ’80s and ’90s. Several of my children ran into gangs and fighting in schools, but it still wasn’t something that was too difficult to avoid. Kids got a few homemade tattoos, and with them came some ink infections — and where we had once been chastised for having a cigarette in the bathroom or under the stadium bleachers, the kids of the ’80s and ’90s were more apt to be smoking pot or cutting school.
Fast forward again to the public school systems of today. Now, I’m not saying they’re all bad or run improperly. I’m just telling some elders who haven’t been near the school systems in 20 or 30 years about some rather extreme changes. The elementary schools aren’t included here. What I’m about to describe starts in the middle schools and goes into the high schools.
I’ve written about plenty of kids who make it through school and graduate just fine, but the problems in the schools are there, just ask any teacher, some of whom will admit they’re afraid of the kids in their class.
The culture is different. Whereas I (and my older children) all had after-school jobs, there aren’t jobs for most of these kids. So they’re left with lots of spare time, combined with constant streaming technology. They know where the parties are, and where the drugs are being sold.
Worse yet, a lot more of them are ending up on the street.
Just ask Sun City Center resident June Wallace, founder of the Campaign Against Human Trafficking for a three-county area. She knows the truth about what’s going on, not only here in Florida but all over the country. And better than that, she spends her days fighting to save as many children as possible from life on the streets.
Wallace says Florida alone has more than 100 kids a day (especially teens) who either run away or are “thrown away” usually by single parents or parents who have to be gone most of the time to work — and others who just can’t do anything to keep their kids in line.
That figure is staggering. Worse yet, Wallace says there are from 34,000 to 36,000 older children and teens on the streets of America right now. Some have been kidnapped for slavery or sex, while others have left home and taken up a lifestyle that allows them to exist, whether it’s by prostitution or other illegal activity. Some suffer from Stockholm syndrome, where they learn to “love” the person who cares for them — as in the case of a young girl who is taken in by an older man (or worse yet, a pimp) and given food and clothing and other necessities — or drugs if she is so inclined — in return for doing this person’s bidding.
Wallace works tirelessly to make people aware of this situation, and when she moved to Hillsborough County several years ago and I interviewed her, she said her dream was to have a shelter that would house and retrain the ones who could be rescued.
Since that time, Wallace has made tremendous headway, starting up several small shelters with the help of local people and groups, each holding maybe four to six people, and all but one for girls only, but she cannot seem to get the money for programs or to build or buy a shelter that will take care of the needs that she says “tear her heart out.”
When I asked her the other day if she could wave a magic wand and see something happen, she said: “I would ask that everyone put the human trafficking hotline number in their cellphone and that they would support our two annual fundraisers – our Fall Golf Tournament and our Spring Yellow Duck Race, both of which give ongoing support to Florida’s Sex Trafficking Victim Shelters.”
She asked that people watch for signs of at-risk children — children in groups or alone on the streets with no adult; and also for gang activity, graffiti, tattoos and other signs.
Florida, Texas and California lead the nation in human trafficking. It’s not just a problem for places like Mexico, Argentina or Haiti anymore. It’s right here, at a count of around 35,000 kids a year.
Wallace is working with some groups in Wimauma that are trying to improve situations and needs all the help (there and in other areas) she can get. There are information packets with “Team Leaders” and “Team Duties” listed in brochures and on the trafficking website.