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Children involved in commercial sex trafficking are often recruited first by classmates at school who are doing the bidding of pimps, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other officials warned Wednesday at an event at the U.S. Department of Education.

Officials also warned that educators could unwittingly leave students vulnerable to victimization if they suspend or expel troubled students from school — leaving them unsupervised — or place them in alternative school settings where they are also exposed to potential recruiters.

“In my school district we are looking at our disciplinary practices,” said Jenee Littrell, director of guidance and wellness at the Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County. She was invited to the U.S. Department of Education describe her efforts to identify and help school-aged youth exploited by pimps. The Obama Administration is attempting to disseminate more information to schools on this problem.

Littrell talked about two girls who, unknown to school staff, had become involved in child prostitution. The girls’ behavior had become especially aggressive with staff, and one girl was suspended from school, Littrell said. She was discovered at a track, an hour later, Littrell said.

Littrell said that, in her experience, girls who are lured into prostitution have been poor and affluent and from all ethnic backgrounds. But recruiters, both boys and girls working for pimps, Littrell said, zero in on kids in foster care and students with troubled home lives or special-education needs.

Warnings signs teachers can look for: when kids buy lunch for other kids, or flash around money, or become fiercely protective of their cell phones because they contain information about pimps. One girl, Littrell said, ultimately disclosed to adults that she had been sent to work hundreds of miles away in another California city, where her prostitution at a truck stop brought in a thousand dollars a day.

Alice Hill, senior counselor to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, said human trafficking, whether to serve the sex industry or the job market, has been designated a national-security threat. “We call it ‘hidden in plain sight,’ “ Hill said. Some of the trafficked are foreigners smuggled into the United States. They are often promised jobs in offices or industries and then forced into prostitution once they are here.

But other victims are Americans, some younger than teens.

Hill said between 100,000 and 300,000 American children are at risk of being trafficked for sex, according to University of Pennsylvania and U.S. Justice Department studies. Almost half of sex-trafficking activity involves minors. Gangs have become deeply involved in recruiting and controlling child prostitutes. One of the more notorious of these gangs, Hill said, is MS-13, the transnational crime group with networks in Central America and the United States.

Hill said gangs have started putting tattoos on girls whose prostitution they control. “It’s a form of showing ownership of the victim,” Hill said. Under federal law, no youth who is under 18 who is prostituting can be charged with sex-trafficking; he or she is considered a victim under the law. Underage recruiters, however, can be charged.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...