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Episode 24: Human Trafficking Prevention in Schools

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Content Warning: This episode contains acknowledgments of human trafficking, exploitation, and related content. Be advised that it may not be appropriate for the youngest of listeners, as well as those who are sensitive to this topic. To report human trafficking call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

January 11th marks National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. This episode is going to showcase the number of ways that folks in New Jersey are working to prevent human trafficking in our state and around the world.

In addition, this episode will be highlighting some of the themes and topics that will be presented in guidance that will be distributed by the Department of Education in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Children and Families. Districts will be notified when this guidance is released ,and it will help extend their understanding and knowledge as it relates to human trafficking prevention.

My first conversation in this episode is with Danny Papa. He and I discuss what human trafficking is, how schools can work to prevent human trafficking, and how he and his students helped spread the message of human trafficking prevention around the state, and even the country.

The next conversation I have is with Kate Lee and Victoria Adams. We discuss how schools can make the topic of human trafficking prevention accessible for children of all ages, so that they can start engaging early and often on this most important of topics.

Danny Papa

Danny: My name is Danny Papa. I am the president of the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking. I am also co-chair of the education committee for the commission. And then my day job is I'm a K to 12 supervisor of social studies, art and technology education for Jefferson Township Public Schools located in Morris county, the New Jersey coast. [unclear] human trafficking, we have virtual offices. I would say that we started in Morris County, but we are we are a statewide organization, um, and we--and we represent all 21 counties of the state.

Ken: Excellent. So could you just explain a little bit, uh, what human trafficking is and why human trafficking prevention should matter, particularly to educators who are listening to this podcast?

Danny: Absolutely. The umbrella definition of human trafficking is the use of forced fraud or coercion for the purposes of exploitation. And this exploitation could be in the forms of sexual exploitation and/or labor, uh, or services, where an individual is held against his or her will. The State Department, the US State Department, estimates there are more than 25 million people worldwide stripped of their freedoms, individuals. By all accounts, on a global scale, we know that more than 50 percent of the victims of human trafficking are children and young people. In the United States, we know that the average age of entry, some reports will say the average age is between 11 [to] 13,  other reports will say between the ages of 12 and 14 is the average age of entry into human trafficking in the United States.

We know that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's an increase of screen time. There's an increase of time on their devices: cell phones, iPads, tablets. Young people are isolated because of--of where we're at, um, in the pandemic. And as a result of that, predators and traffickers, as I've said, will use, um, will take action in the period of time from march 1st, right, 2020 through June of 2020, there there was a 200 percent increase to calls to the Cyber Tip line in New Jersey alone. Nationally,  the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, on a national level, is seeing a 175 percent increase.

Ken: You--you mentioned COVID-19. And as you think about prevention, how have conversations been impacted, uh, around prevention related to COVID-19?

Danny: Sure. Our objective as educators is the od…is the safety of our students, even in an online environment. And this is something that we really need to talk about.

Before I get into prevention, I just want to mention how this happens in a really detailed way.

So traffickers and predators are extremely sophisticated in how they target young people, in a number of different ways, whether it's through gaming, online gaming, whether it's through social media, whether it's through dating apps. And they know exactly how to target the--the boys or the girls that they're looking for. Um, and just keep in mind that a major misconception in human trafficking is that boys are not affected and boys are not victims. Um, we know that that is absolutely not true.

So what a trafficker or predator is going to do is they're looking for young people online that are vulnerable. They're looking for someone that may not have a lot of followers, may not have a lot of likes. And essentially what they're going to start doing is they're going to start liking, they're going to start commenting on, an Instagram post, Tik Tok,  Twitter. And from there, they're establishing some sort of relationship. And then their goal obviously is to have direct messaging, right? And have the direct communication, the back and forth. And whether it's in an online gaming situation, whether it's in a chat room on the internet, or whether it's through social media.

And what we have learned from law enforcement, and when I say law enforcement, more specifically Lieutenant John Pizzuro of the New Jersey State Police, he heads up the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force. He is one of the leading voices, uh, nationally, as well as here in the state of New Jersey. What happens is--is that once the predator or trafficker then moves the student or the young person to a point where they can have back and forth conversation, they're going to start having mirroring language. And what I mean by mirroring languages, when the young person says, "my parents have left me home alone all day and--and I have to do my schoolwork and I hate my schoolwork." What the trafficker or predator is going to do, and just keep in mind that what they're doing is they're posing as a 14 year old boy, they're posing as a 16 year old girl, they're really not who they say they are or who their profile says they are. And essentially what they're going to do is they mirror the language back. "My parents left me home alone as well and I hate doing my schoolwork. I hate doing my homework."

From a gaming perspective, it's "tell me about what, you know, what kind of CPU you have?" And then the young person will say, "Oh, I have this CPU."  And then the predator says, "oh, well my CUP is even better." And then they start going back and forth and having that that disc---that discourse and dialogue about the gaming platforms. Um, just showing that interest. And what happens is that young person never really suspects that that person is really a 45 year old man or a 60 year old man, really behind that that profile.

So the mirroring language happens. And then essentially the goal then is the predator looks to move to a different platform where there is not a lot, where there is not oversight. And then the dialogue and the relationship will continue the ultimate goal of that trafficker or predator is to arrange an in-person meeting. And then when they have the in-person meeting, you, there there's where force, fraud, or coercion will come into place. And then again, the purpose of that then will then be the exploitation of that young person.

In speaking with John Pizzuro, a lot of our work at the coalition has been around awareness in kind of a six to twelve range, middle school, high school. And John Pizzuro told us, which was so frightening, he said "if your target is six to twelve," he's like "you're missing the boat."  He's like "predators are targeting students in second, third, fourth, and fifth grade, when they're first getting their devices, when they're first getting into, um, aspects of social media." And that's really where, their, you know where their target is.

I just want to read a quote, um, from Lieutenant John Pizzuro. John says, "the new normal has become distance learning and other forms of virtual communication. This is the virtual playground where children reside, and it has given predators the ability to be on the same playground with those children without parents knowing." That is absolutely terrifying.

To answer your question about prevention, there's a number of things that  we have outlined at the coalition. Um, and they begin with educating our students about online safety and how they should never under any circumstance engage in any sort of conversation with someone that they do not know. The conversations they should engage with is the students or the friends that they have, either in school or in their class. You know, maybe friends that they have from a youth group or from, you know, another organization. Or they play on a baseball team or a soccer team with. Engage in those conversations. But if someone begins to talk to you, if someone begins to  rapidly like all of your posts. If they start commenting and you don't know who they are, do not engage in a conversation under any circumstance.

It's really important to explain the danger of accepting something like V Bucks in gaming from someone you do not know. Why is--why is a stranger all of a sudden giving you something?

Educators, as well as parents, should really establish those safe and open lines of communication where a young person feels safe to  let an educator and or a parent know that someone has been messaging me that I don't know, that they're constantly trying to talk to me, they're constantly liking my photos. I don't know who they are. Let an adult know.

Another thing is that we should make our students aware of, um, that they should never, under any circumstance, meet someone in person that they have met online. A predator trafficker will engage in 50 to 60 different conversations with 50 or 60 different young people at a time. They're looking for that one. They're looking for the one who is vulnerable, the one who they connect with, and the one who then really begins to buy in, you know, to all of their tactics of manipulation and coercion and so on, to then arrange that that, uh, in-person meeting. You know?

And then another warning sign too is if someone has a conversation with a young person, and then all of a sudden they want to move from Instagram, and they want to move to Discord. Well, that should send up a red flag. Why can't we just have a conversation on Instagram?

But these, uh, guidelines are something that we really want to put on the radar of every school district in the state of New Jersey because we know that if these preventative strategies are being employed, we know we can ensure that our kids are going to be safe.

Ken: [murmuring in agreement] Thank you. And I think that those steps are really clear, and they will help educators as they’re approaching this with their students. So thank you for sharing that and really kind of breaking things down the way that you did.

How did you get into this work? What did that process look like? And for other folks who are interested, I think it would be helpful for them to hear your journey if they're people who are--who really want to get involved in preventing, you know, human trafficking. So, what was the trajectory of it? And how could other folks get involved?

Danny: Sure. In my mid-20s, a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his who started a non-profit organization, they're called Love146. They're based out of Connecticut. And I didn't know about human trafficking. I didn't know about modern-day slavery. And when I was introduced to it in my mid-twenties, my heart was so gripped. I could not believe that this heinous crime existed, and it existed to the ma--on the level and magnitude that it does. And then I became a teacher at age 29 and it was just something that I felt passionate about. And then in my third year of teaching, I was teaching about the introduction of slavery in Jamestown Colony in 1619, and my "Do Now" question of the day was,  "does slavery still exist today?" And the students looked at me like, "Mr. Papa, what are you talking about? Slavery doesn't exist today. We learned that it was abolished and how—what--what is this guy talking?" So, obviously, the question or the answer from the students was "absolutely not. Slavery doesn't exist today."

And then what I did was I made a connection between slavery in the past and slavery today, and what slavery looks like today. At the end of the class a student came up to me, her name was Kate, and she said to me, "Mr. Papa, can you give me the link to that website? I really want to learn more about this issue." That was on a Friday afternoon, or a Friday. And she came back that Monday and said, "Mr. Papa, I spent the weekend learning more about human trafficking." And Ken, she looked at me and I will never forget this day or this moment for the rest of my life; it was the most important moment, I would say, in my educational career. She said, "Mr. Papa, we have to do something about this."

To make a long story short, um, she rallied up a bunch of her friends. We had about 30 students. We worked with a few other teachers in our school. We put together an awareness campaign. The awareness campaign became known, and the students called our awareness campaign,  "Project Stay Gold," which then became a non-profit organization. The students then, um, so our original awareness campaign started with we took a week where, it was a week of awareness in the month of March, this is the following March from that October. The students, um, put together a lesson on "what is human trafficking" and they went and taught it to the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade social studies classes. As well as they, um, our administration allowed the students to give morning announcements with facts and statistics that they communicated. And then we, the students, created posters with facts.

And the students were so empowered by those lessons and by that week of awareness, that they said, "Mr. Papa, we have to continue to do this. We don't want to stop. We want to let students in other school district learn about this. We want this education to come throughout the state of New Jersey."

Um, so what we did that summer and into that fall was we, um, we launched...we created...we built a website. And we created some awareness videos. The website is project--project and our videos are under our media tab on that website, where you could see the videos that the students created. And then from there so many incredible doors opened up for the students, uh, and then, you know, the videos that the students created were used by a number of different outlets for education and awareness. 

For example Picatinny Arsenal here in Morris County used their videos as part of their human trafficking training, which was amazing to see youth educating, um, you know, the members of our government, which is absolutely incredible. And then our partnership that we formed with Attorney General Chiesa. We went to his office that fall--that spring. He came to our school as well. In June of 2013 tragically, uh, Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away, and the governor at the time appointed Jeff Chiesa as the interim United States Senator. In that July I received a phone call from Senator  Chiesa's office and, um, his secretary said "we would love to have your students present when Senator Chiesa delivers his first speech on the floor."

So we went down. So Senator Chiesa spoke for about 12 minutes on the floor of the United States Senate about human trafficking, about how his goal, while he was a Senator, was to work with the Senate in bringing about preventative measures of trafficking. And while he spoke he spoke about Project Stay Gold and the work of the students, which was absolutely amazing. It was such a surreal experience because in that moment I would always say to the students that "we learn history to make history." And in that moment they made history. So that was the summer of 2013.

January of 2014 the Super Bowl was coming to New Jersey. And I'm not sure if you or your audience is aware, but what law enforcement has found is really anywhere where there is a large event, there is a demand for sexual service. And there are predators and traffickers who are going to meet that demand with supply.

The New Jersey Coalition [against] Human Trafficking formed to bring about preventative strategies in the state of New Jersey with the Super Bowl. And we were invited by them just to be part of that, uh, coalition. And that's how I was introduced to the New Jersey Coalition. I've been a member of them ever since, uh, 2012 when they started. And I've had such an amazing opportunity to work with so many incredible citizens from the state of New Jersey here. Um, with the coalition we are so united and passionate to end and prevent human trafficking here in the state of New Jersey and beyond.

And the one thing I really want to highlight is part of the work of the coalition is, um, is working with our legislators. In January of 2018 a bill was introduced in the, uh, Women and Children Committee about providing human trafficking guidelines to schools. Their primary objective was "how can we bring education to students all throughout the state of New Jersey? How can we have every school make this an issue that is utmost importance when it's about protecting, um, the safety of our kids?" And when that bill was signed into law and now that those guidelines are just about to be released. It's a dream come true, um, not only for myself but also for my students. And, um, I've had the honor and the privilege to work with the Department of Education on the creation of these guidelines, as well as a number of the members of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking as well.

Our Executive Director, Kate Lee, has been, uh, very instrumental in these guidelines. Um, we have a survivor, Gina Covallo, who's on our board. Gina is also very instrumental in the creation of these guidelines. And we're just so excited about these guidelines that are going to be released by the Department of Education.

Ken: Wonderful. And you've mentioned a number of resources: the Project Stay Gold videos, as well as the resources that will be coming from the Department of Education with, obviously, lots and lots of stakeholder input involved in that and collaboration involved in that. If educators are looking for more to explore in terms of how to engage students around this, how to engage administration in their school or district, and engage their community, are there any other information sources that you would recommend for them to consult with or to look at?

Danny: Absolutely. So, you know, I would say when those guidelines, the DOE guidelines are released, I think that's a really great, great place to start. They're extremely comprehensive and will provide an effective overview of the issue. 

But then also, you know, ways to go about that. So I would start there as well.

So something that we're doing with the Coalition, every January, for the actually the last two years, we've done something called a Locker Slam. And last year we printed over 28,000 magnets. We had seven different magnets, seven different colors, with seven different statistics. We had the, um, the National Human Trafficking hotline text number, and that a student could report if they, um, have, you know, seen any signs, um, happening to them or their friends, um. And then we had over 60 schools sign up. The year before we had over 35 schools. So we had over 90 schools participate last year in putting awareness magnets all over their, uh all, over the lockers in their school. The Locker Slam is a really great way to begin the conversation within a school.

This year, um, we are shifting our Locker Slam. We're calling it Locker Slam 2.0. And Locker Slam 2.0, uh, has--it's completely virtual and it's completely free. So school districts could go to our website, which is just safernj {}. Go to our education tab. We have a number of resources there, but they can sign up to be part of the virtual Locker Slam or Locker Slam 2.0. They are gonna receive a tool kit and those virtual stickers are gonna be in all different sizes. They could use them to post on Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok. They can use them to post on their learning management systems, whether it's Google Classroom, Canvas, Blackboard, Schoology, whatever that they're using. They can use those, uh, those virtual stickers as signatures in their email. They could use them as their avatar. However they decided to use them. Um, and all of the stickers, um, have questions that, uh, are...objective for the questions is to inspire students to think very critically about what they're doing online.

{end of section}

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: A clear theme in my conversation with Danny was helping students turn knowledge into action. The next conversation I have is also centered on this theme. And it extends it to think about how to develop content that is appropriate for all students of all ages.

Kate Lee and Victoria Adams

Kate: My name is Kate Lee. I am the Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking. I also co-chair the Legislative Committee. I'm from Millburn Township, New Jersey. It's in Essex County.

Victoria: My name is Victoria Adams. I am a Program Developer and Assistant Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking's internship program. And I'm the co-chair of the Communications Committee. I am from Island Heights, New Jersey, which is in Ocean County. And I am a senior at Drew University as well.

Ken: Yeah. So to start off, what are some best practices you've seen around engaging students in the area of human trafficking prevention?

KateThis is Kate Lee. I've seen a great deal of wonderful, innovative  ideas coming from schools and coming from individual students, be those girl scouts or others. But what I really find empowering is when you see that sort of student as teacher-model, where maybe there's an idea about what's happening globally and there's maybe a lesson on forced labor and the things we buy here at home, but then that wraps around where the students will learn more about maybe an individual country where, um, people are being forced into modern day slavery. Or that it comes back to looking at what it looks like in America and in New Jersey in particular with, um, sexual exploitation and also forced labor here at home.

Ken: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing. Victoria, how about you and your perspective on this as someone who is a college student and recent graduate of high school, as well as someone involved with the organization?

Victoria: Yeah. Something I want to follow up on is that I've only been affiliated with the Coalition Against Human Trafficking for three years in January. The things I have seen, like, within the organization and with my practices and, like, human trafficking abolition have been with speakers. The speakers bureau is really great with talking to students and having really great visual examples. I think it only takes one conversation to spark interest when talking about a really hard issue such as human trafficking, but I also believe at the same time that, you know, as human beings our common denominator is curiosity. You learn about something once and then you want to learn more.

So when we interview our interns and we, you know, go through that process, people say, "Oh, I heard about it at an event."  Or, "Oh, I heard about it, you know, through a professor and I wanted to learn more." So I think as naturally curious human beings, people just want to learn about these things. And I think when you have something like a speaker, you know, people can ask questions, and follow up, and really dive into the issue. I'm a really big believer that educators come in all shapes and sizes. So I think it's really interesting to see how, you know, a speaker can really mold the mind of someone who's curious about wanting to create change in an issue like human trafficking.

Ken: So in terms of your perspective, thinking about the things that you just t talked about, and thinking about, again, if there are any specific examples, what are some student-led success stories that you've been a part of, or that you've seen? And what do those look like? And how can schools and educators, whether they're in high school or higher ed, you know, think about replicating some of those things, or learning some of those lessons?

Victoria: So this is Victoria. I think our internship projects are the beacon of success, of student-led change. Um, I did the internship back in 2017-2018, and we were able to network with professionals who interact with human trafficking in their daily lives. So we talked to detectives and we talked to social workers, and just being able to see that people had so much passion about these issues that they you know wanted to pursue it in a real career was something that was really inspiring for me. You know, as a freshman in college, you're thrown all these ideas. And then you meet people. And then you're kind of grounded. So I think that's really important.

In 2019, the students were able, the interns, they made their own project for January 11th, which is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. And they did a Human Trafficking 101 Summit. So I think in order to teach something you need to understand it really well. And because the event was so successful you were able to see how much the students wanted to learn, and how emotionally invested they were in it. So, it was just really awesome to be part of that project.

Kate: This is Kate. Well, a few years ago, um, the Coalition organized an art competition. It was a silhouette project where we just provided an outline of a person. And it was incredible to see how art really helped to connect young people and own that issue. So they would then just take this blank canvas if you like, and try to tell a story with it. And it generated so many amazing, um, ideas. You really felt the students were sort of learning about one thing in depth. We ended up with silhouettes that maybe looked like a child holding up a sunflower, to tell the story of children, um, around the world who've been forced into agriculture, because, right, they can pick certain things. Or it was, you know, a child soldier that was made into a child soldier carrying a gun. Or it was, um, just telling the story of what coercion looks like, um, you know, through the mind and how it affects the entire body. And one that always stuck with me was the entire silhouette was covered with glass mosaics to try to tell the story of beauty and overcoming trauma might have been shattered by trafficking, but there's beauty in that and you come back as a survivor and overcome it. And so we've seen, that I do really think, that art is very powerful as a tool to let young people express complex ideas that may be a little bit difficult on the surface. But there's something, uh, beautiful and wonderful and light at the end of it.

Um, but we've also seen just like our small projects, like Locker Slam, which is where we would send magnets to school, right? This this year it's going to be a virtual Locker Slam. But when we saw schools, like, owning that, taking ownership of it and turning it into videos. Turning it into just other kinds of graphic images. And then posting it to social media. That felt really you know empowering to see, you know, how students could just take it in any direction. Then they can use it as a seed to grow something much more interesting than we could have ever imagined.

Ken: Yeah. As you think about the range of educators and other stakeholders that listen to this podcast, there's folks who listen to this podcast who work with preschoolers, with first, second, third ,fourth graders, all the way up through high school. I just wanted to ask, “how do you balance developmentally appropriate content with the realities of human trafficking, so that you're really able to engage students in developmentally appropriate ways?”

Kate: Um, this is Kate. So really, we think about this in a way that can touch all grade levels. In fact, we have programs that do touch upon all grade levels, including pre-k, because it's all about safety. And it's about having conversations. And it's about beginning those conversations in a way that seems incredibly normal and logical, and then it just--you build upon it.

But we've got an incredible program that's been developed independently by one of our members, Wincey Terry-Bryant. She's got the--she wrote a book called Safe. And she herself is also a singer. So she has this book, which is a coloring book, and it's just a lovely song and story that goes with that where she'll sing out what it is to be safe, and how you know young kids can just look to, you know, empower themselves and make sure that they're feeling comfortable at all times. So I do think it can begin young.

And then, you know, as kids get older, and we could go into middle school, we were licensed to show this really great 10-minute short animated video called "I am Little Red," and it was made by 50 Eggs, the same people who made a very powerful and not for that age group documentary called I am Jane Doe, and it's narrated by Jessica Chastain. And I've shown that to, like, sixth graders. And it's very--it doesn't, you know, scare them, it just makes them say, you know, "Oh, I didn't know trafficking could look like that." They have a sense of what it is, um, but they've watched maybe a movie like Taken and they think it's all about force. And then this, um, short animated film just gives them a sense of "Oh no, it could be somebody in my phone." Or, you know, "maybe somebody making an offer that seems really good maybe isn't so good. And I should maybe talk to somebody else about that."

So it's been really a great, um, journey to see how you can layer these messages. And also for families, layer the message of, you know, really make sure you wait. When your kid says something's going on, just pause. Really don't think about blaming that child. Really try to look at it and just take a pause. So it is a matter's not just-- -we're not trying to educate just children at the right age, but parents of children at different ages as well. So, um, there's lots of content out there.

And of course, when the kids get to high school we really do share the same kind of training content that we would share with adults, because, you know, young people in high school are fairly sophisticated. They do have a good sense of it. But we also make sure there's a good amount of content about online grooming, because they will recognize all those apps and games that they may be playing that are encrypted end-to-end that no one can monitor, but therefore, you know ,they have to have a sense of, you know, "when is that point that comes where I need to just sort of back off? Where is that little bell gonna ring for me?" And we hope to instill that little bell, if you like, in that moment.

Victoria: This is Victoria Adams. I'm a big fan of, like, catchphrases and acronyms. I remember there was one, I'm not sure if it was by the Coalition, but it was like "red flags." And it was like, you know, what to look out for for a victim of human trafficking, or survivor of human trafficking, in order to help them. Or, you know, just being able to make information approachable I think is really important. You can really make it relevant. I think that's the most important thing to do, and then people will just follow and understand once it affects them.

{end of section}


Ken: At the {New Jersey} Department of Education, we believe that this should not be a "one and done" experience for our listeners. As you go back to your school context, we would ask that this is something that stays front of mind, and that you challenge your school and your students to work to prevent human trafficking.

Let's continue this conversation at the January 19th #NJEdPartner's Twitter chat that will be starting at 8:30 pm. Please join us as a statewide professional learning network to discuss this topic.

I'd like to thank the Office of Student Support Services for helping me plan this episode and identify guests. I'd like to thank my guests who had so many important insights for all of us. And I'd also like to thank Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this episode to make it accessible.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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