COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Between swim meets, exams and music lessons, high schoolers across northern Utah are devoting what remains of their free time to a different type of activity.
Many have joined the fight against sex trafficking that occurs in the Beehive State and beyond.
Backyard Broadcast, a national group seeking to raise awareness of the issue, now has seven high school chapters along the Wasatch Front. Chief among its priorities is teaching students that forced prostitution happens in their own state.
"The thing about human trafficking victims is they're in your own neighborhood," said Terry Palmer, national director for the group. "They recognize this is happening in their community. It's not Asia or Africa or South America."
Palmer joined about four dozen students on Wednesday to cheer a fundraising effort that netted about $300 to fuel prevention and training efforts. The group includes students from Cottonwood High and the adjoining Academy for Math, Engineering and Science.
Since the organization's launch in 2012, student representatives have testified at the Utah Capitol, urging lawmakers to toughen penalties for those convicted of sexually exploiting adults and children.
They meet weekly over doughnuts during their lunch period, learning to spot signs of trouble within their circles and also scan for warning signs among other groups. They are routinely visited by survivors of human trafficking, officers who are trained to interview victims and lawyers from the Utah Attorney General's Office, said Preston Palmer, a co-leader of the Cottonwood chapter, which members call a station, and Terry Palmer's son.
The Palmer family's introduction to human trafficking came when their daughter Madi Palmer panhandled for a day in 2011, part of a St. James Episcopal Church effort to help teens understand those less fortunate.
The thing about human trafficking victims is they're in your own neighborhood.
–Terry Palmer, Backyard Broadcast
Chaperones and police stood watch nearby when a man gave her money, then offered to drive her to a restaurant and give her a place to stay. Her mother stepped in and the man drove away, Terry Palmer recounted. Police later told them the driver's behavior mirrored that of traffickers.
The experience moved Madi Palmer to start the Backyard Broadcast group at Cottonwood High before attending college in California.
"For all the work we did in homelessness, we didn't know much about human trafficking," Terry Palmer recalled Wednesday.
The group also seeks to address root causes of the crime. It combats typical notions of masculinity, rebuffing the idea that "boys will be boys" and encouraging male students to give voice to their feelings and treat women with respect, said Logan Oliphant, a Cottonwood senior and station co-chief. Traffickers and those who patronize them are seldom women, he added.
"It's the men who have the problem," he said.
Ahead of graduation later this month, students in the club paid $5 apiece to take part in a game called Assassin, in which they toss water on their mark and then go after that person's target. (A parent's approval is required). A handful of student winners accepted $10 gift card prizes during the Wednesday meeting and cheered the roughly $300 they brought in from the entry fees.
The group has other plans to draw attention to their cause in coming months, including a 5K race in June.
Morganne Skelton, a senior who will attend Southern Utah University in the fall, said the club has made her feel a greater responsibility to help prevent concerning behavior that may point to human trafficking.
"A lot of people don't know how common it is," she said.