A Hopkins High School junior is taking her push to better educate Minnesota students about sex trafficking to the State Capitol.
Seventeen-year-old Jessica Melnik and other Hopkins students joined legislators at the Capitol on Monday to unveil a legislative proposal that would provide optional sex-trafficking education resources to schools across the state.
"Ultimately, it will be great if everyone has to be taught about this," Melnik said. "It'll give schools more options, and I think that schools will definitely be more likely to take on these bigger issues knowing that the government supports it."
The new legislation would allow school districts to include sexual exploitation prevention instruction in health curricula. This could include age-appropriate instruction on detecting sexual exploitation, and how offenders identify, groom or desensitize victims.
Melnik is the founder of Girls United MN, a nonprofit group from Hopkins High School that seeks to empower female K-12 students. The group first learned about sexual exploitation after hearing of a past Hopkins student who was trafficked.
In November, the students began contacting local legislators, county attorneys and nonprofits for help. By January, the group had gained bipartisan support for a bill expected to be considered in the upcoming legislative session.
"Jessica's leading a charge that you wouldn't anticipate for a junior in high school," said Rep. Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, chief sponsor of the measure in the House.
The bill would expand on "Erin's Law," a measure enacted last year that gives schools the option of educating students on sexual abuse prevention. Under the plan, school district officials could consult with other federal, state, or local agencies and community-based organizations to craft the best tools and programs to prevent child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.
Girls United MN "saw something that was missing and said, 'This should really be something that school districts could offer,' " said Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, who is sponsoring the measure in the Senate.
An August report from the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach Center estimated that 380,000 Minnesota men may have purchased sex at least once. The report based its findings off a national study.
Though experts say it's difficult to pinpoint how many people are trafficked in the state, recent data show more children and young adults are receiving help.
More than 1,400 sexually exploited children and young adults received housing or other assistance from 2015 to 2017 under Minnesota's Safe Harbor program, according to a Wilder Foundation report released in November.
"This is an issue, and it is happening in Minnesota. It's not just in the metro, it's happening in greater Minnesota," said Lauren Ryan, Safe Harbor director for the Minnesota Department of Health.
Educating youth on the prevalence of state sex trafficking, as proposed under the new legislation, could help combat the issue, Ryan said.
"It's making children and youth aware that this occurs, that someone could be looking to develop a relationship with you and have alternative motives," she said.
Jessup said he expects the bill to be heard in committee within the first two weeks of session.
Ryan Faircloth is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.