To many of us living in Texas, it feels like our state legislators are upstream pushing our children into the river.
The famous river parable I refer to shares the story of a confused community struggling to deal with mysterious bodies collecting in the river near their village. Finally, one person decides that instead of getting more proficient at rescuing bodies, they should go upstream and find out why so many people are falling into the river.
Here in Texas, where our leaders should be looking to improve our children's safety in schools, they are instead focusing on band-aid solutions for problems they are responsible for. This is while they fuel the illusion that there is no hope for change, only thoughts and prayers for the way things are.
The most recent of these so-called solutions are DNA kits that the state of Texas is distributing to schools to help families locate missing, trafficked, or hard-to-identify children in the aftermath of a tragedy. The term “hard-to-identify” echoes the tragic reports from the recent school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, where 19 students and two teachers were killed, some unidentifiable due to the nature of their injuries.
For supporters of gun legislation reform, it's clear that these DNA kits are not a solution, but a distraction from a problem that would be better solved upstream by enacting stricter gun laws, so our children never become bodies that are hard to identify.
In addition to matching DNA with hard-to-identity bodies, the DNA kits are also supposed to help families locate missing or sexually trafficked children.
Governor Abbott’s Child Sex Trafficking Team has a detailed list of their top five priorities. As with the DNA kits, most of these priorities, like punishing traffickers, are only relevant once the damage is done. Only one, "Protecting Children," acknowledges the upstream issue, yet incredibly includes no details about the importance of comprehensive sex education in preventing child sexual trafficking.
According to multiple studies outlined in World Without Exploitation, "Up to 84% of prostituted women and girls are survivors of childhood sexual abuse." An upstream preventative measure would be to give children the education to protect themselves from abuse and teach children to value each other so that they do not perpetrate abuse.
In the Journal of Adolescent Health’s “Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education,” there is "strong evidence for the effectiveness of child sex abuse prevention efforts in elementary school…they teach about body ownership and children's right to control their bodies and about communication and self-protection."
Unfortunately, outside groups successfully influenced the State Board of Education (SBOE) to keep the topic of consent out of Texas education requirements, despite health experts arguing that consent lessons help prevent sexual violence.
“How Texas Quashed Sex-Ed Lessons On Consent,” details how the SBOE shifted their focus to refusal skills, which do nothing to address the person forcing their will on others, or to prevent the next generation of human traffickers.
In 2021, the Texas State Board of Education approved the first new health textbooks in more than twenty years. As with consent, the Texas SBOE removed any reference to sexual orientation or gender identity from the health textbooks. If they had looked upstream, they would consider that LGBTQIA+ kids make up a disproportionately high percentage of the homeless population, a group with the highest risk for sex trafficking—the thing they say they are trying to prevent.
According to the Texas Education Agency's own website, trafficking is "occurring on school grounds, at school events, and even carried out by classmates." We can't settle for abstinence-only sex ed, which only teaches kids how to say no. We need comprehensive sex ed that includes lessons on becoming a person who would never pressure or endanger others.
Unfortunately, due to House Bill 1525, starting with the 2022-23 school year, after decades of being opt-out, all sex ed in Texas requires an opt-in from a student's parent or guardian. In cases of child abuse, students' access to information that could protect them from abuse or sex trafficking is literally being put in the hands of their abuser. Requiring an opt-in also puts students without strong family support systems at risk of falling through the cracks, including children in foster care who are at a higher risk of future homelessness after aging out of the foster care system. Texas leaders are pushing these kids into the river.
Like the governor's site, the Texas Education Agency’s Human Trafficking page primarily includes post-trafficking tips, as well as links to printable "Stop Trafficking" posters. Their one helpful link leads to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Supportive School’s report titled, “Human trafficking in America's Schools.”
In this federal report, they detail that "certain systemic, family, and individual risk factors make some students more vulnerable to traffickers. By identifying and addressing the ‘upstream’ determinants of human trafficking, such as domestic violence, substance use, and poverty, communities can help reduce the number of students who will face it."
The same groups that have been so influential in convincing state leaders in their fight against sex ed, and even removing the term consent, are now coming after Social Emotional Learning (SEL). It boggles the mind that anyone could find fault in lessons that focus on loving yourself and respecting the differences of others. Unfortunately, there are still some people who aren't comfortable with everyone being included under the umbrella of dignity and respect.
The effects downstream are undeniable. Our kids hear, learn, and internalize these messages. People who don't feel loved or respected are at a higher risk of being groomed for trafficking. People who don't feel like certain people deserve love or respect are more likely to become someone who takes advantage of another. Or they become someone who buys a weapon of war, walks into a classroom, and makes your child "hard to identify."
Our “leaders” have created problems they don’t want to solve.