A new Board of Education rule requires all Florida school districts to implement child trafficking education into their curriculum.
BRADENTON — When Kimberly Weller applied for a job at the spa tucked into a seedy Bradenton strip mall near the airport, there was no talk about her skills as a masseuse or related work experience.
The job interview was just one question:
“You know what this is, right?”
She knew. She wouldn’t be giving massages or pampering soccer moms looking to de-stress. She would be having sex with a steady stream of customers.
The 24-hour brothel, just around the corner from a Manatee County elementary school, charged $60 for an hour with Kimberly. She kept half, plus tips, and was soon making up to $700 a day. She was easily out-earning her fellow graduates from Sarasota Military Academy, class of 2006.
She took the job because she wanted to be in control of how she earned her money and, as a kid, movies such as “Pretty Woman” had glamorized life as a sex worker.
“In my mind, at least, I was controlling the situation,” she said. “I was reaping the benefits that I thought were there.”
But life at the brothel didn’t bring shopping sprees with Richard Gere. Instead, it was full of horrifying encounters with beer-soaked construction workers, businessmen on their way to work, grandfathers on vacation.
She had never heard the term “sex trafficking” when she started work at the brothel, and she didn’t notice the pattern at first — that every other girl working there had similar stories of childhood sexual abuse. While the spa owner’s bank account grew, the girls had all become drug addicts, needing to be high to do the job — and needing the job to get high. She was no longer in control.
Teachers and guidance counselors had warned her and her classmates of the dangers of drinking and drugs, but no one had ever mentioned the predators looking to get rich off of broken girls like Kimberly, who believed it was her fault her family member molested her as an 8-year-old.
If a teacher or mentor had intervened when she was in elementary school and told her she was actually being abused and given her someone to talk to, her decisions down the road may have been different, she said.
That is why a new rule adopted by the Florida Board of Education gives her some hope.
This month, Florida became the first state in the nation requiring sex-trafficking education as part of every student’s curriculum.
“Tragically, human trafficking is an epidemic in our country,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said upon passage of the new rule. “Children of all ages need to know and understand the hazards of human trafficking and how to protect themselves from dangerous predators.”
The new policy requires every school district to implement age-appropriate lessons about the dangers of one of the state’s fastest-growing industries.
“I think it is going to be an eye-opener for our students,” said Valerie Ellery, the Florida Department of Education’s new Human Trafficking Education Specialist. “We are very grateful we are able to have this rule passed so we can start doing education.”
The new state rule comes at the same time U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, and Alcee Hastings, D-Fort Lauderdale, filed bipartisan legislation that would provide $75 million in grant funding over five years to nonprofits and schools to develop curriculum to “understand, recognize, prevent and respond to signs of human trafficking.”
School districts have until Dec. 1 to select a DOE-approved trafficking education curriculum, and teachers will receive training to implement the material into their coursework. One of the lead proponents for the rule was Selah Freedom, a Sarasota-based national organization that works with survivors of sex trafficking and which is already doing trafficking education in seven school districts in Florida.
Getting schools to talk about trafficking isn’t easy, Ellery said. The term can conjure images of children being kidnapped and held hostage as sex slaves, and school administrators have been leery of fearmongering.
Ellery wants to get the message out that, in an internet-soaked culture in which one in 10 children have experienced childhood sexual abuse, the reality of child trafficking is far more common and insidious than parents or educators may think.
“Trafficking can occur with anybody for anybody,” Ellery said. “We need to be aware and know what are the indicators that the perpetrators are using.”
The key to effective trafficking education is making it age appropriate, Ellery said. Kindergarteners won’t be learning about sexual assault or life as a prostitute, but will instead talk about “safe and unsafe touch” and the difference between a secret and a surprise.
One of the goals of the legislation is to teach young children that if someone touches them inappropriately, it is important to tell a trusted adult.
“We are talking about safe adults, what fear looks like, how to use our voices if we are in situations where we feel fearful or yucky,” said Kyra Montaque, the Southeast Prevention Coordinator at Selah.
Elizabeth Melendez Fisher Good, the CEO and co-founder of Selah Freedom, said of the thousands of women Selah Freedom has worked with over its eight years in existence, 100% had been the victim of childhood sexual abuse, and most kept it a secret.
High school students will learn about tactics used by traffickers and not to be naïve to strange adult behavior.
Normal grown men aren’t interested in hanging out with high school girls and showering them with gifts, said Good. If a 15-year-old girl all of a sudden has a 27-year-old “friend” who buys her an iPhone, she should suspect he has some other motive.
Good said one of the goals of trafficking education is encouraging female self-confidence.
“If a guy comes over and says, ‘You girls are beautiful,’ he is looking for the one who looks down and says, ‘No I am not,’” Good said. “They don’t want to take on a confident girl.”
Teachers won’t be expected to serve as counselors or therapists under the new state rule. They’ll be trained and administer the curriculum, but if a student comes forward with concerns, teachers will direct students to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, through the PolarisProject. Nonprofits like Selah and other groups providing the curriculum will also provide support.
Ellery said part of her job is helping people understand trafficking isn’t isolated to back alleys in bad neighborhoods.
“We do have that mentality of thinking ‘not in our hometown, not here, it must be somewhere else,’” she said.
In 2014, police discovered a prostitution ring involving students at Riverview, Sarasota and Venice high schools. Alexa De Armas, a 17-year-old Sarasota High girl, and Julian Luis Mathena, a 15-year-old Venice High boy, teamed up to recruit classmates to have sex with men in exchange for money and alcohol.
The pair arranged an encounter between a 15-year-old female classmate and John Mosher, a 21-year-old dishwasher, in a community pool shed in Nokomis. The girl said she didn’t want to have sex with Mosher, but he held her against the wall. In exchange, he gave her classmates $40 and a bottle of alcohol.
The students saw how easy the money was and started crafting plans to recruit more girls through a series of online messages, according to investigators who searched the pair’s Facebook accounts.
The students planned to “pimp hoes,” charging $50 to $70 for oral sex, $100 for sex with a virgin, and giving the prostitutes a 40% cut, according to the online exchange.
”lol we need to start a business,” wrote De Armas, whose mother had been a participant in the Selah program.
After students alerted Venice High administrators that De Armas and Mathena had tried to recruit them, police arrested the pair and charged them with human trafficking. Mosher was arrested and charged with sexual battery on a victim older than 12, and he received a sentence of one year and a day, plus three years of probation.
Hope for girls like her
Kimberly’s time at the brothel in Bradenton was short-lived. She began smoking crystal meth between clients and developed the scabs and grim appearance the drug is known for. As her appearance deteriorated, customers were less interested in her services, and she ended up getting fired after four months.
“I kind of looked a little bit like a zombie,” she said. “I’m the only person I know who can be successfully terminated from a house of ill repute.”
What came next were three and a half years of walking U.S. 41 and countless sexual encounters with men in an abandoned lot where the Wicked Cantina Mexican restaurant now stands. She was assaulted more times than she can remember.
It seemed like a strange life for a girl who graduated from Sarasota Military Academy with a 3.75 grade point average. She had grown up in a home where they got new bikes every year for Christmas and Nintendo 64 the day it was released.
“I used to say when I was on the street I don’t know how I ended up here,” she said.
She got picked up in a sting operation in 2016 and had the option of jail or a recovery program through Selah, which has partnered with the State Attorney’s Office and Sarasota Police Department to offer programs as an alternative to incarceration.
She completed Selah’s intensive program over the next two years and now works as a nail specialist at the Paint Nail Bar in Sarasota. She is also the nail salon’s National Brand Ambassador and oversees a partnership with Selah to provide work opportunities for women participating in the program.
Three women from Selah work at Paint now, and Kimberly is mentoring one of them, a 19-year-old former Sarasota County School District student who got pulled into prostitution.
After the countless hours of therapy, Kimberly understands more clearly how she got swept up into “the life.”
She doesn’t blame anyone else for her choices, but she is able to connect the dots more clearly now — from the sexually abused child, to a girl with deteriorating self-worth and a feeling that all she was good for was sex.
She also sees more clearly the role the brothel owners, countless buyers and her pimp on the street played. They saw a girl who had no self-confidence and could be taken advantage of, and she is hopeful that the new state mandate will help girls like her avoid those predators.
“In that person’s mind, all you have to offer the world is your body,” she said. “If someone is broken, you don’t want to exploit that.”
Ryan McKinnon is a staff writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.