Human trafficking course explores understudied problem

Human trafficking course explores understudied problem

Stephen O’Meara, human trafficking coordinator for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, speaks with students about signs of sex trafficking, such as the tattoo brands shown on the screen, during a recent discussion in the class, Human Trafficking in Nebraska and the Great Plains.

Human trafficking is often hidden, out of view in communities both big and small. But thanks to a new class offering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln students are learning how common this crime is – even in the Great Plains.

They’re also learning how it’s being combatted and how they can help stop it.

The 400-level class, Human Trafficking in Nebraska and the Great Plains, is the brainchild of geography lecturer Rebecca Buller.

“The exciting thing about it, from a scholarly view, is that there’s so much research that needs to be done. We don’t know or understand even the tip of the iceberg,” Buller said. “But that’s also the frustrating aspect of teaching (about human trafficking) and talking about it. We don’t have a large body of scholarship yet, so there are more questions than answers.”

Buller developed the class after her research turned toward human trafficking, the human populations involved and the characteristics of the crimes. The topic has been covered briefly in her other classes, but two years ago, she decided to teach a class devoted to the topic.

The pre-session class, which runs three weeks from May 18-June 5, was offered for the first time last year.

Buller built the curriculum on current events. For the reading portion, she uses a textbook she calls a “snapshot” of several subjects – legislation, policy, social services, case studies – related to human trafficking.

She relies on news articles about trafficking cases, guest lecturers from groups who fight the problem, and trafficking survivors. The students have gone to the Nebraska State Capitol each year to talk with state senators about trafficking legislation.

A recent guest lecturer, Stephen Patrick O’Meara, Human Trafficking Coordinator with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, spoke about the FBI task force he has worked with as an assistant United States Attorney to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases in Nebraska and Iowa. O’Meara demonstrated to students how large events amplify human trafficking already taking place in the Great Plains, and spoke about the cultural changes needed within communities and law enforcement to be able to spot and stop abuses.

Buller said students are from many disciplines, including geography, criminal justice, history and education, but they come into the class not necessarily thinking of human trafficking as a problem in their city or state.

“I was shocked to learn that most of the girls we call prostitutes are not in the business voluntarily,” said Ali Coufal, a senior political science major. “The most shocking thing to me has been that trafficking occurs even in the smallest Nebraska towns.”

Jacob Lambert, a sophomore global studies, political science and geography student, said he knew human trafficking existed, but has been surprised by its reach.

“I didn't know that it was such a large, widespread problem,” he said. “It's crazy that it is such a huge problem that gets barely any attention.”

The need to bring attention to the issue is partly why the class culminates with an individual project assignment.

“The goal of the final project is to turn them into informed global citizens who are willing and able to inform others,” Buller said. “I ask them to pick a skill they have and use it to educate others about human trafficking.”

With so much ground being covered in such a short time, Buller knew the class would be intense, but she was surprised at how her students were affected.

“By day two last year, it was very emotional, very tough for the students, and even me, to process,” Buller said.

For that reason, she gave time the second day of class this year to UNL’s Counseling and Psychological Services to teach students coping mechanisms to use while approaching the course material.

“When you hear from the survivors … you have to be ready for it and even when you think you’re ready for it, I don’t really know that you are,” she said.