Former Loudoun Teacher Brings Awareness to Child Sex Trafficking | Education | loudounnow.com

Sydney Dunlap, a Loudoun County Public Schools teacher for 18 years, had heard the words, “child ” before but didn't know much about it until she stayed up one night unable to pull herself away from a movie based on a true story about it.

“It showed kids hardly older than my students being screamed at and cursed at and thrown into a van,” she said.

Dunlap said it changed her and she decided to learn everything she could about it. A move to Texas shortly after got her involved. She decided to volunteer to help victims instead of taking a full-time teaching job.

Through her volunteer work leading the Houston-area organization called Traffick911, she spoke to countless youths in juvenile detention centers to bring to the issue. She said many of the participants didn't realize they were victims until they learned what it was.

Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor against their will, according to the Project, a national nonprofit organization that provides data to researchers and .  There are two types of human trafficking, sex trafficking and , according to the organization.

In some situations, people being trafficked know and trust their traffickers. It can happen in relationships where one promises the other a better life if they engage in it and in other rarer situations parents traffick their own children. Dunlap said sex trafficking happens under the noses of society; in motels, hotels and massage parlors that can be fronts for it, often happening without the victim realizing what is going on.

According to the Polaris Project, traffickers target emotionally and physically vulnerable people. They often use to find victims and look for posts that indicate low self-esteem or loneliness. Anyone can be trafficked, but some are more vulnerable.

In 2021, over 10,000 situations of human trafficking were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, involving 16,554 individual victims, according to the Polaris Project. The organization stated on its website that number is likely “only a fraction of the actual problem.”

Dunlap agreed. She said the numbers are grossly underreported and decided to write a to bring awareness to kids aged 11-14 without it being too much for them.

“It happened on Saturday,” a book that brings awareness to child sex trafficking to pre-teens by former Loudoun teacher and author Sydney Dunlap. | Contributed/Sydney Dunlap
“They need to know it's a thing and that people are actively looking and at the mall and places where kids go. They are looking for vulnerable youth,” she said. 

Sgt. Wayne Promisel has been the supervisor over the Special Victims Unit with the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office since 2017. Before that he worked in sex crimes in both Loudoun County and Fairfax County. He echoed what Dunlap said about being aware to stay safe.

He said there are not huge numbers of child sex trafficking or sex trafficking in general in Loudoun. In fact in Virginia during 2021, there were 140 identified cases, but Promisel said, “it doesn't mean it's not happening, it's just an underground thing.”

“Often, it comes to our attention when we trip over it in a case or someone brave calls in and says, ‘I've been trafficked,'” he said.

Promisel said age isn't necessarily a qualifier when it comes to being more susceptible to being trafficked or getting caught up in scams he sees more often like sextortion—where kids or adults send compromising pictures to someone, then that person blackmails them— because it's more about trolling for vulnerability or weakness and that can happen at any age, including to adults.

“It's no surprise that the younger they are the more susceptible they become,” he said. “Can you call it trafficking? I'm not going to say no.”

He said they see sextortion cases involving both teens and adults several times a month. He said today 42% of victims who initially met their trafficker online never met them in person but were still trafficked.

He said parents need to find ways to better communicate with their children and to be more aware of their children's activities, habits and peers to protect them from becoming victims of sextortion or sex trafficking.

“Kids are putting their whole life on blogs. It's a field day for anyone, exploiters, traffickers they can throw out a fishing line and snare as many as they want,” he said.

“People are worried, I get that. But we can't burry our heads in the sand, [child trafficking] does happen and it's a whole lot worse than being told about it,” Dunlap said.

She said she had her former fourth-grade students in mind when she wrote the book.

“When you read something, you can experience an event along with the character and empathize and learn things so much deeper than by the facts you are told. It's more applicable,” she said.

She decided to base her book in Northern Virginia centered around a young girl who posts a picture on social media and gets a comment from someone she doesn't know. The girl begins an online relationship with the person and eventually agrees to meet them. Dunlap said she purposefully put the character in peril, but only long enough to leave an impression on readers.

The second half of the book is focused on recovery from trauma with a counselor.

She said she wants children and parents to know how to maneuver online safely by being aware and to remember anyone can be anyone online.

“If something doesn't feel right, trust your gut, it may save your life. Even if your friends don't feel it, trust it and listen to yourself. Kids are so concerned about fitting in. It's better to be alive and safe than have something terrible happen,” she said.

Promisel agreed with listening to your gut. He said the best way for kids to protect themselves is to be smart about what they put online and to avoid sharing personal information like psychological or traumatic experiences and to avoid falling into the peer pressure trap.

“Everything we've talked about thus far comes from someone who represents themselves as a loving, caring, sympathetic person all under the guise that they have the intention to take and ensnare them into whatever they want.”

Dunlap said parents should have a code word kids can text when they don't feel safe that means they want to be picked up. Other ways parents can keep their kids safe is to have GPS tracking on their phones so they can get to them immediately. iPhone has a feature that can be turned on in settings under “emergency SOS” that calls 911 if you press the side button five times fast. It can also reach out to emergency contacts at the same time, letting them know your location if that has been set up in the health app. A warning sound will be triggered when this happens unless it's disabled. That can be found in the same part of the phone.

It is similar on an Android phone; open settings, then safety and emergency and tap emergency contacts and add a contact. You can add emergency contacts from your contact list. Once this has been added you can go back to settings, scroll down to safety and emergency, tap on emergency SOS and slide the toggle to enable the skill. In this same location you can disable the alarm sound that will alert you that you called 911. You do have to allow Google Maps to always see your location if you use this feature.

“If kids can have this as part of their vocabulary and know what it is; what a recruiter is what a trafficker is and know it's a part of life it can save them. Kids can still go out and have fun but it's always better to do it safely and to be aware,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap will be at Scrawl Books in Reston on March 31 at 6:00 p.m. to sign books and answer questions about child sex trafficking.

If you suspect human trafficking or believe you may be a victim of it you can call the 24/7 confidential National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or you can call the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office.


PBJ Learning is a leading provider of online human trafficking training, focusing on awareness and prevention education. Their interactive Human Trafficking Essentials is used worldwide to educate professionals and individuals how to recognize human trafficking and how to respond to potential victims. Learn on any web browser (even your mobile phone) at any time.

More stories like this can be found in your PBJ Learning Knowledge Vault.



This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from its original online location.


PBJ Learning is a leading provider of online human trafficking training, focusing on awareness and prevention education. Their interactive Human Trafficking Essentials online course is used worldwide to educate professionals and individuals how to recognize human trafficking and how to respond to potential victims. Learn on any web browser (even your mobile phone) at any time.

More stories like this can be found in your PBJ Learning Knowledge Vault.