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Given a fighting chance

A class teaches women how to fend off would-be attackers and keep themselves out of harm's way.

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


UNIVERSITY NORTH -- Eleven women in sweat pants and T-shirts are learning to fight for their lives.

They have enrolled in a course called Rape Aggression Defense (RAD), taught at the University of South Florida by USF police Sgt. Mike Garry.

They are gathered on this night in an air-conditioned trailer to learn how to yell, block, punch and kick. Later they will undergo a mock attack by another instructor, testing not only their memory but their mettle.

For now, Garry shows them how to make a fist, one that will protect their thumb. Many are unsure of the technique.

"He picked you because he thought you'd be an easy target," Garry tells the women of their potential attacker, referred to as "slob," "so we're hardening the target."

At 5 feet 7, with a thick build and velvet voice that can crack like a whip, he is cheerleader, big brother and Army drill instructor.

His first duty is teach them to yell "no."

It is not an easy task.

"NO!!!" Garry booms from deep in his gut, and nearly everyone in the room jumps. Told to combine the yell with a defensive stance that blades their bodies sideways and brings their arms up, the women are all smiles and nervous giggles.

It takes four attempts before everyone yells.

By the 20th time, no one is laughing, and their "no's" resound loudly.

"You may take a punch, but you survive that punch, and you continue to fight," Garry tells them. "One punch does not take you out of the ballgame."

The women have allowed a reporter to observe them on the strict condition that their names not be published. Exposure is the last thing they're looking for as they discuss the different ways they have been victims.

One woman was grabbed at a football game by a youth who put his hand up her shorts."I think a lot of times as women we think, oh, he didn't mean to," she said, recalling her own disbelief.

Another, tall and thin with bobbed hair and slanted glasses, tells the group she feels she is not someone a rapist would want to target.

"I guess we need to realize that they don't care who they are looking for," she says quietly, surprising some with the idea that she considers herself too unattractive to be a victim.

She is not alone in her naivete. A young woman with a floral band around her ponytail takes her turn at the punching bag, then wraps her manicured nails under her thumb and smiles as she displays a fist.

"That is the first time in my life I've done that," she says, referring to throwing a punch. "Ever."

Admissions like these come as no surprise to Carolyn DiPalma, an assistant women's studies professor at USF.

"Young girls learn early on that their opinions don't matter, and that it's important to please," DiPalma said. "It's a gender thing.

"Part of growing up male in this society is proving your masculinity. Women don't have to contend with that, so men have more practice at it."

And since an estimated one in three women will be assaulted during their lifetime, DiPalma says that for many women "there's a real kind of block" to taking a class that may bring back horrific memories.

A good self defense class, she said, "pulls you through that muck and takes you to the other side."

By the end of the fourth RAD class, everyone is about to learn if they have made it through that muck.

They watch as USF police Officer Rich McKiver, heavily padded to the point where he resembles something from a tire commercial, jumps fellow USF police Sgt. Meg Kelly.

Kelly dispatches McKiver with several kicks, then runs to the "safe zone" of the room.

No one wants to go next.

One by one they pad up and pull on a face mask to face McKiver and their worst fears.

One young woman, whose forehead creases in a constant worry line, gives a shriek that ends with something like a sob when McKiver grabs her from behind and throws her to the ground.

Garry stands nearby, whispering encouragement and ready to blow a whistle to stop the sparring if he sees the need.

There is no need. Everyone, even those who could barely make a fist during the first class, manage to roll, punch and kick their way to the safe zone, and applause from the class.

Afterward, many still shaking and dry-mouthed, they sit in a semi-circle to watch a videotape of the practice attacks.

One woman admits that she felt "impolite" when she was acting aggressively; another observes that women "constantly have to fight this thing about being nice."

Another acknowledges that she had not done the one thing she had dreaded: Freeze.

"I would rather discover that I'm capable of getting angry and fighting back."

The woman who was grabbed at the football game describes her own transformation: "Before this class, I would think, oh, just submit" to an attack.

"Now, I've become a screaming woman."

RAD classes will resume at USF in the fall. For information, call Sgt. Mike Garry at (813) 974-2771.

-- Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3474 or herdy@sptimes.com.

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