By Ryan Cornell
Thirty-nine 10th grade girls at Stonewall Jackson High School this past semester learned how to become more aware of their surroundings and defend themselves in the event of an attack.
Deputy Keith Cowart, a school resource officer who serves the southern end of the county, said the women's self-defense program -- a Rape Aggression Defense Systems program taught during the students' physical education classes -- has been taught each semester at Stonewall Jackson High School for the past four years and at Central High School for the past two years. He said Strasburg High School offers a similar program through its police department.
"It kind of opens the girls' eyes to the possibilities that are out there, the dangers," he said. "Living here in Shenandoah County, they might be naïve sometimes. It helps open their eyes to be able to avoid situations. The physical part, if they can't avoid it, they'll be able to defend themselves."
He said the program is taught to 10th graders because that's when they're more susceptible to being in these types of situations. "They're starting to drive and they're going to be out alone by themselves more," he said.
The self-defense program is taught in high schools and colleges around the world and also offers self-defense lessons for children, men and senior citizens. According to its website, the program was developed in 1989 to combat the issue of violence against women and has trained nearly a million women since then.
Cowart, whose daughter will take the class next year, was assisted in teaching the course by Deputy Paige Frazier, a school resource officer at North Fork Middle School.
Cowart said they mainly focus on teaching the students how to become better aware of their surroundings, such as making their homes more secure and approaching their cars when leaving the mall.
"A lot of times, people go through life and aren't aware of what's around them," he said. "We teach them how to park their vehicles, what to look for and how to be observant."
He recommended people back into spots and check under and around the vehicle before approaching it, as well as trying to avoid parking beside large vans and trucks.
As an element in the "stun and run" approach utilized by the program, students are taught how to throw punches and kicks and be physically defensive.
"I wouldn't say it's martial arts, just practical stuff that your body can do easily without having a lot of training," he said. "The whole idea behind the RAD program is to escape."
During the final class, Cowart dresses in a padded aggressor suit and acts out a realistic scenario as an assailant and the students can practice what they've learned against him. He said the girls show a visible improvement through the two-week program.
"At first, they're a little timid, but by the end of the course, they're really excited, really getting into the thinking process," he said. "They feel more confident afterward and say it's opened their eyes.
"It's good to see the quieter girls come out of their shells a little bit, pick their heads up and look people in the eyes. Being in the school, I still see them in the hallways in between class changes. You can just tell the difference before the class to afterward. To this day, the girls have their heads up watching things whereas before they didn't."
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org