Beyond the playground: Students solve global issues through sophomore STARS class

Emily Gentry (10) works on her final project for 10th grade STARS Students were required to make a creative response that would raise awareness for the issue of child sex trafficking. Photo by Emily Weaver

Emily Gentry (10) works on her final project for 10th grade STARS Students were required to make a creative response that would raise awareness for the issue of child sex trafficking. Photo by Emily Weaver

Emily Weaver, Staff Writer

Like their fellow high schoolers, sophomores had many problems to solve throughout finals week, from essay prompts to chemistry equations and everything in between. However, one three-week unit prepared them to solve a global problem more than any other: the Nest Foundation’s child sex trafficking pilot program based on the documentary “Playground,” which students watched during 10th grade STARS.

When filmmaker Libby Spears first began working on a film project, she had a very different focus for the documentary that would become “Playground.” The focus of the documentary changed from global crimes against women to international child sex trafficking.

When Spears came back to the United States after two years of filming, she interviewed Ernie Allen, of the Center of Missing and Exploited Children.

“You don’t need to leave the country to exploit a child. I’ve got thousands of kids being exploited every day and trafficked across state lines,” Allen said. He told her to tell that story.  

Spears said that the idea of an educational curriculum was far from the original intention. “At a lot of the community screenings, people would say ‘Hey, when are you going to get this filmed in front of youth? What about the prevention side of it?’ In retrospect, it seems so obvious now, but it took us a long time to get there.”

It took a few years to get the program in place, but by approaching schools directly, Spears was able to implement the curriculum, and help prevent the problem at its root.

First tested in Portland, where much of the documentary is filmed, the program ties into the Ann Richards mission statement, specifically “solving problems creatively and ethically.” The filmmakers have not only created a documentary and curriculum, but have also advocated for policy changes regarding child sex trafficking in the United States.

“There was no legislation that decriminalized… kids getting arrested [for sex trafficking],” Spears said. “Originally, it was all about awareness screenings in the community, going to college campuses, traditional distribution models that we followed, going straight to the hill and screening for legislatures, and being advocates for passing both federal and state legislation.”

14 years after the project began, 10th grade STARS participated in the pilot educational program for the film. The ARS STARS class was fifth in the country to receive the program and second in Texas. ARS STARS educators Doy Roberts and Jill DiCuffa,  Planned Parenthood Community Health Educators Cynthia Brown and Drew Ayotte, and filmmakers Nishima Chudasama and Libby Spears, taught the program. The curriculum was designed to prepare students to address issues surrounding child sex trafficking in their communities.

“We recognized that the way this subject is taught has to be very thoughtful, and has to be very respectful of the place that students may be in,” Chudasama said.

The lessons would lead up to a creative project – a speech, letter, mural, etc. –  that allows students to advocate for victims in their communities.  

Roberts says that Ann Richards is a good school for the pilot curriculum. “I think because you all are leaders,” Roberts said. “I think that most of you value the role of a leader, and because you all are already intuitively in that mindset at this point.”

Students, as well as teachers, were excited to learn about new information.

“I think it is important to learn about this issue,” sophomore Maddy Schell said. “I think that keeping it silent is a disservice and it increases the issue because the way things are solved are by talking about them and brainstorming solutions. By teaching students about it, it sparks them to want to make a difference.”