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Keeping Kids Safe Through Whole School Activism

By Veronica McDaniel and Hermine Morrell
Keeping Kids Safe Through Whole School Activism

(Photo source: Veronica McDaniel)

Atlanta International School Against Human Trafficking (AISAHT) is a student-led group whose mission is to spread awareness and take action on human trafficking in our local and global communities. Students meet weekly to discuss ways to connect with their peers and communities around them to share their knowledge about signs to look for in someone being trafficked, grooming tactics, and ways to report to authorities. They devise creative and engaging ways to relay this information through activities that they hope make a lasting impact on curbing the number of people being trafficked. As a $150 billion industry, it’s the fastest growing illegal industry in the world with traffickers quickly coming up with new ways of luring people in, preying on their vulnerabilities whether those are being under 18 years old, unhoused, food insecure, or escaping natural disasters, for example. 

AISAHT has been active for 14 years. In the Fall of 2011, two ninth grade boys started the group as a response to Atlanta being named a hub for human trafficking. The group subsequently attended Lobby Days at the State Capitol, organized movie nights, panel discussions open to the public, fashion shows, petition signing, and action tables, while also soliciting support and in-kind donations from companies that source their products ethically. The key to raising awareness about this human rights issue is peer-to-peer information sharing. The campaigns at the school that are most effective are those completely organized by the students because it’s the kids’ ideas being executed with empathy, thus the content that gets shared out tends to be absorbed. Laura Lundy, professor of international children's rights at the School of Education at the Queen's University of Belfast, created the Lundy Model of Participation. This is a conceptualization of a child’s rights to participation, as laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and includes four elements: space, voice, audience, and influence. Student-supported activism in a school community supports Lundy’s model and we have seen it in action time and time again at our school. If we give students these elements, they take the initiative and they are inspired to confront an issue that is directly affecting them and their peer group. 

As defined by the US Department of Homeland Security (United States of America) involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. When a person younger than 18 is used to perform a commercial sex act, it is a crime regardless of whether there is any force, fraud, or coercion involved.

With the average age of someone going into trafficking being 12-14 years old, two years ago rising middle school students felt strongly about raising awareness for their age group. The middle school AISAHT group started last year due to a group doing their fith grade International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme exhibition about labor trafficking and raising awareness about the nonprofit organization Dressember’s annual style challenge. Alongside those kids were a couple of dedicated teachers, Ken Coe and Jannapha Hubeny, following through. The next year, Hermine Morrell led the charge with these new sixth graders full of energy and passion and facilitated this eager group. 

(Photo source: Veronica McDaniel)

The first event they planned in September was hosting an information table to raise awareness of human trafficking at a race organized by the Clarkston Refuge Coffee, a refugee-run non-profit organization. These passionate advocate students used their voices to speak directly to the members of the local community about the extent to which Atlanta continues to be a hub for sex trafficking. After this first initiative, the group put their heart into educating their peers about the dark side of chocolate by presenting information in assembly about child labor in cocoa plantations, just before Halloween. A few weeks later, the same group of determined activists organized their last action of the semester: for the second consecutive year, they ran a school-wide initiative for Dressember, inviting all students and teachers to wear a dress, a tie, or a Dressember sticker on December 14th to show their awareness and commitment to the cause.

(Photo source: Veronica McDaniel)

They also presented to the Rotary International Club to End Human Trafficking and in Global Conversations with heads of schools on March 14 during #MyFreedomDay for The Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) with the hopes to inspire educators to promote more student-led activism towards this topic.

The kids drive these student-led groups as they come up with ideas and reach out to the appropriate departments within the school to plan an event. Our year of activities always culminates in CNN Freedom Project’s #MyFreedomDay, a student-led day of action when students around the world raise awareness about human trafficking and celebrate freedom on their school campuses taking place each year in March. The eighth annual #MyFreedomDay took place on March 14, 2024.

(Photo source: [from left to right] Middle School AIS Against Human Trafficking and Veronica McDaniel)

The middle school AISAHT plans linked the secondary to the primary school, creating a whole school community event. They designed age-appropriate activities. Students were tasked with creating presentations, games, and crowd control of primary students, from kindergarten to fifth graders. A group of sixth and seventh grade AISAHT students created a film as part of the Secondary School Film Festival debunking myths about human trafficking. Our upper school group organized a training for parents by the nonprofit Street Grace about keeping kids safe in the digital age. The day’s main event was their Film Festival followed by a Little Hands project which included 3K to 12th graders, collecting handprints to highlight that we stand, as a community, “together against child labor,” honoring this year’s theme and call to action from CNN.

We encourage the kids to plan for meaningful learning and impact and we can confidently say they did just that, not only because of the content that was shared but how they implemented inquiry-based learning. In reflecting with our student group, Maisie Bruner and Kaixuan Guo, the group leaders, juniors in high school, stated when talking about the success of their Film Festival:

“We feel confident that what we planned left an impact.  We heard countless students in the hallways and in classes talking about the films and bringing up human trafficking in classes. It was the films, which were created by students outside of the group, that were showcasing and debunking the myths. It seemed as though this caught the attention of the filmmakers’ friends; they wanted to see what their friends made, and in return, learned at least something about human trafficking. We found that receiving help from the community left an impact that we could not make alone.”

Atlanta International School students call on schools around the world to take part and connect to share perspectives and learn from each other the most effective ways to confront human trafficking. A whole school approach, which starts with our youngest celebrating their freedoms to our oldest knowing how to discern fake job ads, not only connects the community but creates a level of awareness that protects our kids throughout their schooling. Giving students the tools they need to know the signs, how to report, and how to build confidence as individuals are all methods for the prevention of exploitation. From our experience at AIS, we encourage the formation of student-led groups in all schools around the world and we hope others will join in our movement to confront human trafficking through student activism. 


Veronica McDaniel is a secondary school physical and health education teacher at Atlanta International School and has just started a non-profit called FREEST that works to prevent human trafficking through education by empowering students to take action.

Email: [email protected] 

Hermine Morrell is a secondary school French teacher at Atlanta International School and is a dedicated Service as Action faculty supervisor for middle school AISAHT.

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