Kitchener-Waterloo

1st Ontario schools sign up for made-in-Waterloo sex traffic awareness course

A cottage country school board north of Toronto will be the first in the province to use a made-in-Waterloo sex trafficking curriculum that teaches kids how to spot potential predators.

Trillium Lakelands School Board serves cottage country north of Toronto

TK Pritchard says lessons in the trafficking curriculum help teachers go into greater detail about topics such as consent, exploitation and online safety. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

A cottage country school board north of Toronto will be the first in the province to use a made-in-Waterloo sex trafficking curriculum that teaches kids how to spot potential predators.

The curriculum is aimed at students in Grades 7 and 8. It was developed by staff at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region and was released earlier this fall.

Since then, public education manager TK Pritchard said he's been "surprised" at the level of interest from school boards and community groups both in Ontario and in other provinces.

"To be honest, we weren't really expecting the curriculum to be taken up – and have so much interest – so quickly," said Pritchard.

Right now, he said three school boards and a dozen other community groups have expressed interest in the curriculum.

Trafficking in rural Ontario

Of the three boards interested, the Trillium Lakelands District School Board — which has schools in the city of Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton County and the municipality of Muskoka — is the first to sign on to use it in their schools.  

Sonya Vellenga, the board's mental health lead, was the driving force behind the idea. She has a background working with survivors of sexual violence, and wanted to bring more education on the topic into schools.

Vellenga said human trafficking can look different in less-urban, more rural parts of the province, but is still very present.

"We are a cottage country area and that brings in its own risks," said Vellenga.

She said kids may spend more time online due to a lack of easy transportation, and therefore be more at risk of being snared by online predators.

The Trillium Lakelands District School Board will be the first in the province to use a made-in-Waterloo sex trafficking curriculum that teaches kids how to spot potential predators. (Submitted by Sinead Fagan)

According to Kawartha Haliburton Victim Services, there were 18 women and four girls who were victims of human trafficking during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, although staff say they suspect there may be more.

"There's far more out there than we're engaged with, and that's one of our challenges," said executive director John Hagarty.

Practical lessons on consent, exploitation

The curriculum is called RESET, which stands for Recognizing Exploitation, a Syllabus to End Trafficking.

Lessons are aimed at students in Grades 7 and 8 — a time when kids might be entering their first romantic relationships.

It's also an age when kids are liable to become the victims of sex traffickers, who Pritchard said often try to win their victims' trust by posing as boyfriends or love interests.

Pritchard said the curriculum fits with the health and physical education guidelines set out by the province, by providing practical ways of talking about the abstract concepts of consent and exploitation.

"This really pulls out, 'What does that mean?'" he said. "Our curriculum looks at how can you then more in-depth teach what exploitation means, how can you more in-depth teach what things like online media safety looks like."  

Vellenga says kids in rural Ontario can be at risk of trafficking due to feelings of loneliness and isolation. (CBC)

Vellenga said the plan in her school board is to make the curriculum available in all Grade 7 and 8 classes, although it likely won't be brought in until next semester.

For now, Vellenga said she will begin by working with teachers to make sure they understand the curriculum and can answer students' questions.

No decision yet in Waterloo boards

Laurie Scott, Minister of Infrastructure and MPP for Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, has long been an advocate against sex trafficking and said she's pleased to see further information on the topic available in schools. But she said she hopes the conversation doesn't end there.   

"I'd love for the school boards to go and actually speak to the clubs, whether it's Lions Clubs, any service club, the chambers of commerce, so that everybody in the community becomes involved," said Scott.

Locally, the Waterloo Region District School Board is still mulling over the curriculum and officials are expected to make a decision about whether to adopt it in the next week.

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board is also considering the curriculum. A spokesperson for the Catholic board said the conversation is still in its early stages and that no decisions are expected for at least a few months.