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News / Clark County News

Training at La Center High School helps students, parents spot online predators

About 1 in 5 children reported an online predator has messaged them

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 11, 2024, 7:31pm
5 Photos
Deborah Alexander, from left, and Jen Barnett, volunteers with Shared Hope International, chat with La Center School District Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz before a presentation about online safety at La Center High School on Wednesday.
Deborah Alexander, from left, and Jen Barnett, volunteers with Shared Hope International, chat with La Center School District Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz before a presentation about online safety at La Center High School on Wednesday. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

LA CENTER — A two-day training at La Center High School this week for parents and students emphasized that sex trafficking doesn’t just happen overseas or involve a man with a van offering candy.

The predator can be a friend or family member, or someone who reaches out through the devices most of us carry all the time.

“A child can be trafficked without ever leaving their bedroom and their parents right next door in the living room,” said Mikayla Simeral of Shared Hope International, which conducted the training. The nonprofit, which has offices in Vancouver and Washington, D.C., was founded in 1998 by former Republican 3rd District Congresswoman Linda Smith.

Studies show about 90 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds use social media. About 40 percent of children from fourth to eighth grades said they have chatted online with strangers, and 1 in 5 children reported an online predator has messaged them.


  • They will try to talk to you or your child a lot.
  • They will ask about a child’s personal information.
  • They will try to move the conversation to another app or game.
  • They will have multiple profiles or accounts.
  • They will ask for photos or videos.

“It only takes one of these signs to set off your radar, trust your gut and to tell a safe adult,” Mikayla Simeral of Shared Hope International said.
Children are advised to have a safety plan that includes listing three people in their life they trust to tell if they feel unsafe talking to someone online.

Warning signs a child or friend might be being groomed or trafficked

  • Signs of physical abuse, such as burns, marks, bruises or cuts.
  • Unexplained absence from school.
  • Sudden inappropriate dress or sexualized behavior.
  • Overly tired in class or unable to keep up with studies.
  • Withdrawn, depressed or distracted.
  • Bragging about making or having lots of money.
  • Displaying expensive clothes, accessories, shoes or a new tattoo (often used by pimps as a way to brand victims).
  • Older boyfriend, new friends with a different lifestyle or gang affiliations/involvement.
  • Disjointed family connections, running away, living with friends or experiencing homelessness.
  • Interacting and sharing personal information with sometimes significantly older people online.
  • Constant cover-up for abuser, self-shaming/blaming.
  • Risk-taking behaviors, poor boundaries.

For more information, visit https://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/prevent/awareness/internetsafety/.
If you see something suspicious, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678 or National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. In an emergency, call 911.


The parent training Wednesday explained how human trafficking can manifest over social media and how to recognize signs that children may be victims of online predators.

That’s a much needed lesson for many parents who did not grow up in the age of social media and technology, Simeral said. She encouraged parents to start having conversations about online safety with their children as early as possible.

“We have to take tests to get our driver license, but when you’re in middle school, you get handed a phone and told ‘have fun’ and trust that you’re going to be OK,” Simeral said. “But there’s going to be strangers trying to talk to (kids) constantly.”

The student training Thursday covered how they can identify signs they might be encountering an online predator.

“We want to combat it by preventing it,” Simeral said. “So you never have to get to the point where you have to be restored or seek justice for what’s been done to you.”

School staff said the training is a necessity for both parents and students. The topic hits close to home.

About 13 years ago, a former La Center High School student was lured to Seattle by two older men and taken to a strip club. Her family and friends contacted police, who in turn enlisted Shared Hope International for help, extracting her from the dangerous situation.

“This is a big issue in our community and area, especially with being on the I-5 corridor,” La Center High School Principal Matt Johnson said. “The main hope is general awareness of the issue and also signs to look out for and strategies to help avoid it. Then, they can also help others in our community stay safe.”

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La Center School District Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz said the training was important for the school district to host because the signs of trafficking or online dangers aren’t always obvious. He heard about a Clark County student who was propositioned by a man in a windowless white van outside a convenience shop. The man was offering the student modeling auditions.

“They were able to identify the signs and get themselves out of a situation that could potentially turn into a trafficking situation,” Rosenkranz said. But added not every situation will be like that.

“Our role is education … and that can be community awareness and unique opportunities to make people aware. If this helps families have better conversations around the dinner table — all the much better.”


While women and girls are more commonly victims of trafficking and predators, according to the American Psychological Association, the issue impacts everyone.

The training taught students about “sexploitation,” which commonly impacts boys and involves someone posing as a random woman online. The person will send fake nude photos to boys and ask for photos in return.

Once the person has them, they will threaten to make the images public unless the victim gives them money or engages in more sexual favors.

“What happens is that kids don’t want to admit what they did, they can’t come up with the (money) and don’t want to ask their parents. And it leads to a lot of kids taking their life,” Simeral said.

While Thursday’s training for students taught them how to recognize signs of trafficking, it also pointed out signs that a friend might be a victim of a predator.

“Be a nosy friend,” Simeral said. She advised students to tell a trusted adult if they notice a friend acting or dressing differently, being secretive about whom they are speaking to online or having unexplained items, such as new cellphones or lots of cash.

Simeral called the students “digital natives,” a term used for people born after 1997 who have grown up under the influence of technology. She said this is a good thing and can help them advocate and protect younger generations who are also digital natives.

“You are the next ones to say, ‘we need to protect kids’,” Simeral said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.