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The Richmond Justice Initiative, which fights human trafficking in the Richmond area, held its annual “Sweet Taste of Freedom” event Saturday morning, September 30, 2017 at the Veritas School in Richmond, Va. Matt Ployd, a teacher at Smithfield High School, was a featured speaker at the event. (Skip Rowland)

Attendees at Saturday’s fundraiser and recognition event for the Prevention Project, which curbs human trafficking through education, heard from area high school students about the program’s impact.

Those on hand for the “Sweet Taste of Freedom” program also heard from a student, who, while a senior at Smithfield High School, developed a computer program now in use by law enforcement to penetrate a “dark” area of the internet where sex traffickers and their clients lurk.

Joell Maisano, manager of the Prevention Project, a program of the Richmond Justice Initiative, said the seven-state program was piloted in the Richmond area at Hermitage High School in 2012 and is now in all Henrico County high schools. It also has been used in Goochland County and is in Newport News as well.

The program trains teachers and others how to make teens aware of their surroundings, how to detect lures used by traffickers, and how to protect and shield their vulnerabilities, while also encouraging them to be leaders helping to look out for their classmates.

“We’re trying to reach as many students as possible which is why we have events like this to keep the costs low for schools who want it,” Maisano said. Since 2012, she said, the program has reached nearly 10,000 students.

The prevention project offers a six-lesson curriculum designed to give schools, after-school programs and youth groups the means to prevent teens from falling victim to traffickers. It also offers the training to nurses, social workers, counselors, administrators, teachers and youth workers.

Maisano said many students have not heard about human trafficking before learning about it through the project curriculum. “If you don’t know what it is, you can’t protect yourself against it,” she said.

As of June 30, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center — which connects trafficking survivors and victims with services — said there have been 950 cases of human trafficking reported in Virginia since 2007. Most of the cases involved women, about a third involved minors, and sex trafficking accounted for about two-thirds of the cases.

Jessica Willis, executive director of Richmond Justice Initiative, said, “Clearly, we need to have human trafficking education in all schools. If children understand what it is, they will be more likely to identify it.”

The victims of traffickers come from all walks of life, she said.

“Usually we go into high schools, but I am so pleased to share with you that this very week, in Newport News, every single sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade student is piloting our new middle school program,” Willis told the supporters on hand Saturday.

Matt Ployd, a government teacher at Smithfield High School, said that as he went through the material provided by the Prevention Project with his students last school year, they quickly understood the importance of the subject.

“The material provided by the Prevention Project helped the students and myself realize there’s no safe demographic, there’s no safe gender, there’s no safe socioeconomic background, no safe sexual orientation. ... Every single person’s at risk,” he said.

The program educates them about the problem from the safety of a school, he said.

“In the classroom, you can control what they get to see. We can’t on the streets. They’re going to be educated one way or the other. They’re going to be educated either by people trying to pick them up, or they’re going to be educated by us showing them what to look out for,” he said.

Ployd said his students decided to work on ways to spread awareness about human trafficking or curb its impact.

One of them, Joel Hatfield, then a senior at Smithfield, went above and beyond. He developed a computer program that can unmask traffickers and their clients who use “The Onion Router,” or “Tor” network, where their real identities, their credit card numbers and other information would otherwise remain anonymous.

Ployd said he sent the program to the county’s information technology staff for examination to make sure Hatfield’s claim was accurate.

“They immediately called me back and said, ‘This program has no business in the hands of anybody but the military and law enforcement,” he said. “It has been used successfully in the real world by law enforcement,” Ployd said.

The program, said Ployd, can “penetrate the veils and firewalls of the dark web in order to hunt down human traffickers where they feel the safest — in their homes.”

“Suffice to say, he got his ‘A,’” Ployd said.

Hatfield, who has since graduated from Smithfield, also appeared at Saturday’s event. “What I created attacks the Tor network. The Tor network is used to hide online. ... It allows people to watch child pornography; they can use it to buy illegal weapons, drugs, any criminal activity,” he explained.

The program can allow law enforcement to “find exactly where they live.”

To learn more about the Prevention Project or to make a contribution, go to www.prevention-project.org.

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