Sex trafficking was once a subject rarely discussed around this part of the world and an even more uncommon topic of conversation around this part of the country.
By COLE BENZ | Herald Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sex trafficking was once a subject rarely discussed around this part of the world and an even more uncommon topic of conversation around this part of the country. But recently it has become a big issue for western North Dakota.
It took 7th grade English students at Scranton Public School by surprise last week when they learned about the sex trade from somebody who has spread sex trafficking awareness as it entered the mainstream.
Michelle Engraff, a teacher at Scranton Public School, along with her team teaching partner, Karyn Chiapella, set out to educate students about slavery. Starting with slavery in history at the beginning of the year, Engraff and Chiapella ended with a lesson on modern day slavery—something their students were not aware of.
When the students learned that such atrocities still occur in today’s world, they decided to try and help the cause.
That’s what led them to Windie Lazenko.
Lazenko spoke to students in Scranton on Nov. 26 and shared her experiences with the sex trafficking industry in North Dakota.
Lazenko is on the forefront in the fight against sex trafficking and exploitation in the state. She is the founder and leader of the organization 4Her North Dakota and has battled the industry of sex exploits in the state for over a year.
Sex trafficking is a form of modern slavery that exists throughout the United States and globally. Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to force women, men and children to engage in commercial sex against their will.
Under federal law, any minor under the age of 18 years induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether or not the trafficker used force, fraud or coercion.
Lazenko’s efforts have recently made national news when she was featured on CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” which aired last month.
Ling spent a week with Lazenko, documenting her operations and discussing the issue at length. Ling was present to witness Lazenko in action as she attempted to rescue a woman that was a current victim of sex trafficking in Williston.
Lazenko was also a victim of sex trafficking. Her sorrow over the situation quickly transformed into a fiery spirit.
“A fire lit inside of me and I was excited and disgusted all at the same time that I had realized what had happened to me … and I just immersed myself in doing whatever I could,” Lazenko told students.
She first began her campaign in her own community. Hanging out at skate parks in southern California, she was the support that some needed.
Before she ventured to North Dakota, Lazenko made school visits where she would teach students how to recognize at-risk behaviors and things in their own lives. Another part of her visits were to make the students aware of the dangers they could encounter when surfing the Internet, something Lazenko said has allowed the sex trade to explode.
Lazenko’s trip to North Dakota was only supposed to be a couple of weeks, but after she saw what was happening, she knew there was too much work to do for her to go back.
“I did it because it needed to be done and somebody needed to pay attention to it,” Lazenko said.
Lazenko then founded 4Her North Dakota, an organization aimed at supporting survivors of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. Her organization is one of the first primarily focused on helping people be freed from the sex trade life. She has been directing the efforts of her group for about a year and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“We’ve done some great things in a year, but I can’t wait to see what the next year holds,” she said.
Her work with 4Her is to be a voice and advocate for the survivor.
“My No. 1 position in the fight against human trafficking is to mentor and advocate for the victims when they are first discovered,” she explained.
Right now her biggest hurdle in her efforts has been the limited amount of financial support. With more funding she would be able to move forward with the next step in her organization: building a safe house for outreach planning and for survivors to temporarily stay.
“We really need that safe house open because we’ve been able to serve the girls that have come to us through different avenues but we could really be doing outreach and a lot more with a safe house,” she said.
After reading the statistics about present day sex slavery and the exploits in their own state, students at Scranton Public School were disgusted. Chiapella also said that news coverage of the Bakken oil boom’s drawbacks often does not mention the presence of sex trafficking.
Students were displeased with the little awareness being shared within the state and decided something had to be done.
“It was a matter of a week that these kids said, ‘something is wrong here, what can we do,” Chiapella said.
The students decided that they would make and sell weaved bracelets for a fundraiser; they asked for a donation and gave the donor a bracelet for their generosity.
Chiapella and Engraft said they knew their students would raise some money, but were surprised when the students raised $777.
“They exceeded their plan of action,” Engraft said.
The students also surprised Lazenko.
Along with giving 4Her the donation, the Scranton students mailed her letters about what they learned and offered a thank-you.
Lazenko keeps those notes close and said it is rare that organizations such as hers receive that kind of recognition.
With some help from Scranton’s donation, Lazenko said she would continue her fight against sex trafficking.
More information about sex trafficking and 4Her North Dakota is available at its website, www.4herND.org.