In their latest production tackling difficult and sensitive subjects, drama students at Deering High School in Portland are delving into the brutal, heart-wrenching issues surrounding sex trafficking.

“It Could Happen to You,” a one-time performance on Tuesday at Deering, is a series of student-written vignettes. Some boil with anger, others with fear. All of them aim to teach empowerment and knowledge.

Actors whisper the threats of an abuser, while others reveal the interior voices of a victim.

Sex trafficking is forced prostitution, as opposed to a sex worker who is a prostitute but is not being forced to do it by someone else. In recent years there has been heightened awareness of sex trafficking and pointed efforts to acknowledge that many prostitutes are victims of serious crimes, not criminals themselves.

Gracia Ruganza, 15, a junior at Deering High School, rehearses for "It Could Happen to You," a performance about sex trafficking to be presented at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the school in Portland.

Gracia Ruganza, 15, a junior at Deering High School, rehearses for “It Could Happen to You,” a performance about sex trafficking to be presented at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the school in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The performance, to be followed by a panel discussion featuring law enforcement officials and sex trafficking experts, is meant to use the voices of young people to speak directly to their peers about a sensitive issue many don’t know about or think can’t happen to them.

“People tell me (sex trafficking) isn’t happening, that this isn’t some Third World country. They wish people would just shut up about it,” said Catherine Mossman, a sex trafficking survivor who does advocacy work through her nonprofit group, Stop Trafficking ME. As part of her work, she volunteers at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and gives talks on sex trafficking in Maine.


“Afterward, people come up and say, ‘I had no idea.’ That’s exactly why we’re doing this – for the people who have no idea,” Mossman said.

In the last two years, the Preble Street agency in Portland has worked with more than 100 victims of human trafficking, most of whom also were victims of sex trafficking, according to Daniella Cameron, manager of the nonprofit’s Anti-Trafficking Coalition. She said those numbers covered Cumberland and York counties, but not the rest of the state.

Mossman has a GoFundMe page seeking $8,000 to professionally film the Deering High School production and distribute it to Maine high schools.

At a recent rehearsal, the students sat around a table reading their lines aloud and brainstorming ways to make them more powerful. The vignettes are based on the same theme, in a mix of spoken word, role playing, choreographed movement and rap.

Deering students rehearse for "It Could Happen To You," a series of student-written vignettes about sex trafficking. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Deering students rehearse for “It Could Happen To You,” a series of student-written vignettes about sex trafficking. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“A tank top doesn’t mean I want it. … No outfit will tell you what I want,” one student read.

“Picture this!” the group reads together. “Trapped in the back of a van with the other girls.”


A similar show at Deering last year on sex trafficking was very successful, said drama teacher Kathleen Harris.

“I’ve always believed drama is not just comedy and to make people laugh, but to shake things up,” Harris said.

In 2013, Harris wrote and Deering High School students performed a one-act play inspired by a mural of Maine’s labor history that made national news when Gov. Paul LePage ordered it removed from the Department of Labor’s headquarters.

Grace Uwimana, a senior at Deering High, rehearses for Tuesday's performance. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Grace Uwimana, a senior at Deering High, rehearses for Tuesday’s performance. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Tribute: The Maine Labor Mural Play” focused on the characters depicted in the mural, including Rosie the Riveter; Frances Perkins, labor secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first woman to serve as a Cabinet member; child laborers; and workers who were affected by a divisive paper mill strike in Jay in the 1980s.

Last year, Harris led Deering students in “The Women of Lockerbie,” a play about women in Lockerbie, Scotland, who fought the U.S. government to secure the clothing of those killed on Pan Am flight 103, a plane destroyed by a terrorist bomb in 1988. In the play, the Lockerbie women washed the clothing and sent it to the families of those killed on the flight, believing that it would help comfort them.

Harris said “It Could Happen to You” has an important message for students at Deering, which emphasizes international learning and has students from dozens of countries.


“We have kids here that had to run for their lives” from their native countries, Harris said. Tackling difficult, weighty subjects is the right thing to do, she said.

“These are our future leaders and they need to learn that there is a harsh reality out there,” she said.

The performance at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Deering High School auditorium will be followed by a panel discussion with Cumberland County Assistant District Attorney Christine Thibeault; Mossman; Peter DiMarzio, a victim assistant specialist with Homeland Security Investigations; Equality Maine project director Gia Drew; and Beth Peavey, the juvenile program manager for the Long Creek Youth Development Center.


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