“She wants her hair cut short. Make it a bob,” said Teresa Merriweather.
Next to her stood a 17-year-old girl, head down, eyes averted. “What about her nails? Could you do her nails?” asked Mike Wetherbee.
The girl stood silently as her complete cosmetic transformation was decided in the out-of-the-way Abracadabra Salon. Led to the back by stylist Robert Harris, she was nervous and refused to speak.
The skit, led by Merriweather, an expert on human trafficking, was used Tuesday to show Oberlin City Schools staff the danger Ohio teens are in.
Our state ranks among the worst in the nation for forced labor, which includes trading in sexual slavery. Last year, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine reported 135 human trafficking investigations leading to 79 arrests and 28 criminal convictions.
That puts Ohio behind only California, Texas, and Florida, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Since December 2007, it has taken more than 128,000 calls and tracked more than 31,000 cases.
So far in 2017, there have been 7,572 cases reported.
Salons are one of the key places to watch for signs of human trafficking, said Merriweather — in fact, a 2012 executive order by Ohio Gov. John Kasich requires salon workers to be trained to watch for just such evasive behavior and dramatic makeovers.
Wetherbee, who serves as fire chief in Wellington, said modern-day slavers often head to small towns to hide their victims.
“We’re in such a strategically-placed area that it’s easy to transport people through here,” he said. Wellington, for example, has six state highways and is close to US 20, the Ohio Turnpike, Interstate 71, and other major arteries.
That’s why he had Merriweather train his firefighters to watch for signs of trafficking — small towns often don’t have a heightened awareness of this danger, Wetherbee said.
Local educators, watching Oberlin High School seniors Aszure Chamberlin and Marcala Moore act out scenarios, were asked to look for other indicators of forced labor, such as ID brands by pimps, heroin needle injection marks, and signs of physical abuse.
Chamberlin and Moore each spent about 30 hours working on human trafficking awareness efforts for their senior project.
They partnered with Merriweather in training 32 OHS students in how to stay safe, how to watch for forced labor “recruiters,” and how to avoid social media dangers.
Merriweather hopes to train all OHS teens, launching a massive effort to spread the message. She also aims to arrange a system of safe houses for teens rescued from slavery rings.
The training includes a number of skits. In one, Harris plays a man pressuring a real estate agent to accept $425,000 in cash for a home listed at $385,000. The scenario is based on a real-life situation in Georgia where eight women were held captive in a luxury home.
“A lot of these girls are coming from dysfunctional families and they’re searching for love in all the wrong places,” Merriweather said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.