MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A new survey has state officials sounding the alarm as it shows 5,000 high school-aged students in Minnesota have traded sex for something of value.

The findings come after the state added a question about sexual exploitation to the Minnesota student survey. The results of the survey were analyzed by the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

“We are beginning to be able to count what we were not able to count before, but what we knew was happening,” said Beatriz Menanteau, of the Department of Health’s violence prevention unit, to reporters on Monday.

When Minnesota ninth and 11th graders took the anonymous state surveys last year, 1.4% of them admitted to trading sex for money, food, drugs, a place to stay, or something else.

That’s 5,000 students, and the researchers say it’s likely an undercount, as some young people are reluctant to answer “yes” to the sensitive question. Additionally, young people who aren’t in school (and can’t take the survey) are more likely to be at risk of exploitation.

“This is happening here in Minnesota,” said Jan Malcom, the commissioner of the Department of Health. “It is harming our young people.”

The reported exploitation is happening across the state, with slightly higher rates in northern Minnesota. Boys are just as likely to be abused as girls.

“Youth ask me questions like, why do people take advantage of other people?” said Jenny Miller, who works in youth intervention service at the YMCA. She says loneliness can lead to exploitation.

“It doesn’t discriminate against where you live, what your zip code is, what your race is, what boxes you have to check when you’re filling out who you are, it’s just what unites us as humans is we desire connection and we have to teach young people what healthy connection looks like,” she said.

Still, some groups are more vulnerable than others.

Transgender, indigenous, black, and Hispanic people reported higher rates of exploitation.

Life experiences also play a role. Young people with exposure to correctional facilities, foster homes and unstable housing reported higher rates of exploitation, proving there’s much more work to be done.

“Now with this data, we know even more,” Menanteau said. “We can continue to build and improve our systems response and work to prevent sex exploitation and human trafficking.”

If you or someone you know needs help or is being abused, the Safe Harbor program has services for people ages 24 or younger.

The program is a multi-agency initiative that gives young people resources, such as housing, education, and mentors, to forge healthy lives, free from sexual exploitation.

Click here for more information, or call 1-866-223-1111.

Erin Hassanzadeh