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Taking Classes for Kicks: Self-defense courses strengthen body and mind

You probably know at least one sexual assault survivor.

Simulations of attack scenarios in RAD class
Simulations of several attack scenarios allow students to practice self-defense techniques learned in class.

If you are at The University of Texas at Austin, there is an even greater chance that you know a Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) class graduate as well.

Started on campus in May 2001 with a portion of the money from a U.S. Department of Justice Violence Against Women grant, the 20-hour, five-day, self-defense course’s popularity has spread rapidly, and most classes now have waiting lists.

The basic skills RAD course offered by The University of Texas at Austin police department gives females more options than compliance if they are sexually assaulted. Students learn to set boundaries with men and to become more aware of high-risk situations and environments. Although students are not asked to divulge that they are sexual assault survivors, many elect to do so. For those women, the course also provides an opportunity to discuss the feelings of guilt, shame and regret that a survivor may feel after an assault.

Jennifer Long (not her real name), a psychology major and RAD graduate who was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend last fall, recalls with anger her boyfriend’s repeated demands for sex and her repeated, guilt-ridden no’s. At the time she felt confused about her right to deny him physical intimacy even though she was strongly averse to having sex. After he assaulted her, she felt as though the incident was somehow her fault and that, because they had been dating and he was not a stranger, the act was not rape.

“After the rape, I was completely in denial,” says Long. “I didn’t even realize that what he had done to me was actually sexual assault until I talked to a good friend about what happened. I did not consent. He forced himself on me. It was rape.”

For students such as Long, the course has been about emotional healing and facing insecurities.

Class participants learn self-defense moves
Class participants learn self-defense moves that may allow them to ward off an attacker and prevent assault.
Photo: Kay Randall

In addition to discussing the emotional trauma of sexual assault and offering mental preparation, the classes also incorporate information about the network of resources available on campus if one is a victim of sexual assault. With Department of Justice grant money, training has been made available to staff in the Division of Housing and Food Service, Student Health Services and the university police department in how to respond with sensitivity to reports of sexual assault and assist the survivor in getting medical help or reporting the assault to law enforcement officials. If a female reports a sexual assault, a campus advocate from the Counseling and Mental Health Center is on call and available to meet with and assist the victim in dealing with the event and its after-effects.

The final block of RAD training moves the focus from mental to physical. Students learn and practice self-defense techniques, which include a combination of vocalizing and physical resistance.

“The male assailant chooses a person to be a victim because he feels he can take control,” says Darrell Halstead, a campus police officer and one of six RAD instructors. “If the woman being attacked knows defensive tactics, she can come in and surprise him with voice inflections and strategic moves. You can’t underestimate the power of the element of surprise.”

Because the crux of the RAD program’s philosophy is to provide self-defense options for all women, viable strategies for all ages and levels of physical ability are presented. Disabled, elderly, pre-teen and sight-impaired women are among the many who have successfully completed the course.

Although some students come to the course with fear and doubts, by the fourth evening of class, women who described themselves as timid, physically uncoordinated and unsure are, in unison, striking a defensive posture. They are executing sweep kicks, snap kicks, knee strikes, hammer fists, heel stomps, head butts and shin scrapes with a confidence and precision that would rattle an assailant who was anticipating submission.

Before simulation exercises, students don protective gear
Before simulation exercises, students don protective gear.
Photo: Kay Randall

“I heard about one instance where a guy approached a woman in a parking garage and presented a weapon,” says Cheryl Wood, senior student affairs administrator in the Office of the Dean of Students and RAD class graduate. “The woman turned and looked him straight in the eye and shouted, ‘No! Go stand over there!’ He was so disconcerted that he ran away. That RAD class gives you self-confidence. The message you send is, ‘I am not an easy target. You don’t want to mess with me.’”

If the RAD classes were a dessert buffet, the last class in the five-day course would be the piece de resistance. It’s an opportunity for students to discover just how much skill and assurance they have gained in a mere week. On the last day, students are given the option of going through simulations of several different attack scenarios. The simulations occur in gym space donated by the university’s recreational sports program. They transform classroom lectures into reality.

“I think that the simulation, above all else, was responsible for giving us confidence in the techniques that we were taught,” says Maria Jump, a RAD alumna and graduate student in computer science. “It was proof positive that the energy and time expended to attend the classes were worth it. The officers who were playing the attackers were not giving an inch and were taking a beating in order to show that we were capable of defending ourselves.”

During the simulation, male RAD instructors assume the role of bad guy, donning menacing and bulky fire-engine red Michelin-man style suits and large helmets with black grill fronts. With their normally very friendly faces obscured, they are eerily convincing attackers. The students wear padded protective wear and helmets as well.

For many participants, the simulation requires an attitude shift.

“You want to use every single self-defense tool in your arsenal,” says Sunny McPherson, a female RAD instructor and one of the students’ coaches during simulation. “A lot of students ask, ‘But what if I hurt the instructor?’ We say, so what, so they get hurt? The last thing we want you to do is take it easy on these guys or say ‘I’m sorry.’”

In each simulation there is at least one female RAD instructor present who walks participants through the attack scenarios. She remains near the student during each simulation and offers reassurance and suggestions for defensive moves.

Campus police officer Darrell Halstead     Campus police officer Tim Magill
Campus police officers Darrell Halstead and Tim Magill team teach RAD classes.

If the student is grabbed in a bear hug from behind as she is standing at a pretend automatic teller machine, she can use head butts and shin scrapes to stun her attacker and escape. If she is taunted and grabbed by a RAD instructor who is pretending to be drunk, she can use hammer fists and groin kicks to break from his grasp.

By the end of the average simulation class, a male RAD instructor who assumes the role of assailant will have been on the receiving end of roughly 190 groin strikes and countless head butts, heel stomps and sweep kicks. Although the instructors’ protective wear is designed to prevent injury of both the student and teacher, the winces, slumps and groans from the police officers attest to the vulnerability of the gear and the force behind the students’ moves.

“It’s all totally worth it, though, and I wish every single woman here on campus would take the class,” says Halstead, who shows a missionary zeal when it comes to the RAD program. “It’s these women in class who have the courage to come in and fight their demons and take back their lives that keeps me going when I’m down and out and tired and hurting. They just make me want to do an even better job.”

The classes are taught by RAD-certified police officers and are free to female faculty, staff, students and their immediate family. The course has been approved by Human Resource Services, and classes are offered weekdays, both during the day and in the evenings. RAD courses also carry a lifetime return policy, and a graduate may take a refresher course free of charge anywhere in the United States or Canada.

“I’ve never been a very confident person at all,” says Charlotte Felcman, a psychology major and RAD class graduate. “The class changed me in so many ways—I’ve gained confidence, and I realize now that I can protect myself. I’ve been recommending this class to every female I know.”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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