The girl has just arrived from soccer practice. She timidly walks into the room, looking warily into the corners. After she has taken a dozen tentative steps, a man steps out from behind the hallway door. “Hey girl,” he calls out, in a jovial voice ripe with menace, “why don’t you come over here!”
The girl freezes. She is slender and only a few inches above five feet. The man’s face is shielded behind a wire mask. His considerable bulk is increased by the red padding strapped across his body. He walks purposefully towards her. She watches, her legs and arms tensing.
The girl doesn’t notice that another man has crept up behind her. As if in a slapstick movie, she is unaware of the second attacker’s presence only an inch away. All of her attention is focused on the man who called to her. Then she rocks back on one foot and bumps her head into a massive chest-plate. The contact triggers a sudden display of power and violence, occurring in seconds that seem to move in slow motion.
Before the girl has a chance to process surprise into fear, the man wraps her into a bear hug and lifts her with abrupt ease. Her feet swinging a foot off the ground, she is completely under the masked man’s control. The flailing in her legs is the first sign of the helplessness and fear that has flooded her body. The scream that follows is inevitable, high and shrill, hopeless and unfocused. The man begins to carry her away.
“Go Rachel!” someone shouts. More voices join in. Screams of encouragement vibrate the room.
Rachel stops screaming. She raises her elbows and batters them into the mask. The man steps back. He releases his hold. On her feet, Rachel turns and squares to her assailant. She begins delivering punches to the head, allowing her to close in until she can drive her knee again and again into the man’s crotch, each blow more focused than the next.
The attacker falls to his knees, then his side. Rachel takes one step and slams a free-kick into his ribs. If the man had been a soccer ball, he would be at midfield. He can only shudder and curl more tightly into his fetal position.
The cheers from the women on the sideline are mixed with reminders to run away. Rachel turns abruptly and runs back through the door. Beneath her mask, she can’t stop smiling.
“THIS IS the meanest baddest roller coaster that Fairfax County offers,” SAFE instructor Tim Thomas told the 32 women before the attack exercise. They were waiting behind a wall, unable to see how the scenario would play out until they had been through it.
Officer Nicole Hill’s encouragement was more technical. She advised participants to listen for advice in the thick of battle. “If you hear ‘Hammerfist to the head!’… that means the head is probably in close proximity,” she said. When attacked from behind, she tells the students, who range from schoolgirls to late middle-aged women, “Raise those elbows up high, higher than you think [the assailant’s head] will ever be.”
“I love the kicks at the end,” she added. “More kicks at the end.”
This was “Fight Night,” the fourth and final lesson of the Fairfax County Police Department’s SAFE self-defense program at Mount Vernon High School. It ran on June 6, 8, 13 and 15. SAFE stands for “Sexual Assault Free and Empowered.” The free, four-session class is offered to women once a month at the Criminal Justice Academy in Chantilly. Occasionally, a class is held at Mount Vernon High School. Several of the trainers are defensive tactics instructors at the academy. Others are Fairfax officers and community volunteers who have gone through a 40-hour training course.
Lieut. Frank Cresswell created the program eight years ago after participating in a trail safety course designed for female joggers and another called Rape Aggressive Defense. He thought he could improve on these programs by making the techniques simpler, so he worked with other defensive tactics instructors to create a suite of simple stances and basic, effective blows. He wanted them to become automatic after only a few lessons. “Stun and run,” Cresswell explained. “If you’ve got to think, you’re done.”
The response to the program was enthusiastic. Cresswell described the attitude changes he sees in the participants between the first and last nights. “On the first night they walk in there, some are afraid. They won’t look you in the eye. By the fourth night, you’ve got to stay out of the way. They’re kicking trashcans.”
“IT’S BEEN really exhilarating,” said Julianne Bigler on the final night. “You cheer each other on so you feel so motivated.” Bigler was participating in the training with her mother and several other members of her Girl Scout Troop.
“The coaches are awesome, awesome,” said Robin Boggess, who was taking the class with her daughter Lindsey, also in the Girl Scout Troop. This sentiment was repeated by many more participants. Boggess explained the instructors helped instill a confident attitude that is even more important than the fighting techniques. “If you are going to be put into a situation where your life and death [are at stake],” Boggess said, “you have to be ready to gouge their eyes out with your fingers. You have to be prepared.”
“You will actually be able to do this,” said Lindsey Boggess, “[facing] a guy that’s five feet taller than you, you’re like, ‘I can take you.’”
“It’s about empowering women to gain confidence in their physical abilities,” explained instructor Peter Davila. “For the most part women are taught to be courteous, that they’re smaller, weaker. Those are values our society instills.” Davila said this attitude is what attackers are expecting.
Teaching women to assert themselves before they are attacked can often prevent violence. “The skill is completely secondary,” Davila said. ‘In any given confrontation, the greatest attitude wins. [It] boils down to a matter of will.”
Participant Darci Birmingham said she’d learned that her mental and physical responses were interrelated. “You don’t flip into an immediate fear mode when you use your voice [to say ‘Stay back’].” she explained, “Lowering it a couple octaves gets you into breathing mode, not panicked screaming. Getting your body kick-started, that’s a powerful thing.”
THE FIRST LESSONS focus on awareness and risk avoidance. Many of the participants said that an improved awareness of their surroundings was the most important skill they learned. It is not until night three that the women first put on their pads and practice fighting techniques on instructors. One simulation involves being attacked at an ATM. As each woman fights back, the others scream encouragement. When a woman finally breaks free, gives her assailant a final kick, and runs off, the crowd cheers as if she has hit a home run or scored a touchdown.
And by the end of the night, the instructors feel like they’ve played in a football game. “I took some good shots today,” said Davila. He added that despite the extensive padding they wear, instructors acting as assailants can come away from Fight Night with concussions, fractures and dehydration. “Getting hit in the head is the worst by far,” he said. “Tonight there were several instances when there were flashes when I was hit … I can tell you within the hour I’ll have a headache.”
Scott Colwell agreed that headshots were the worst. “A good head shot will still hurt inside that helmet,” he said. But he added he was grateful to have other areas more thoroughly protected. “I got three levels of cup for the groin,” he explained.
Cresswell praised all of the trainers, who volunteer for the work. “You cannot fake the professionalism. You cannot fake the heart and the energy that they have,” he said.
“IT WAS KIND OF HECTIC,” said Rachel Browning, an eighth grade student at Carl Sandburg Middle School, describing how she felt after rushing from soccer practice into an encounter with a much larger attacker. “I was pumped up, ready to kick some butt.”
Browning was there with her mother, Sally. “I thought it would be a great thing for us to do together,” Sally said. “I think it’s good for a young girl who’s going to be driving soon … to be aware of her surroundings.” There were at least six mother/daughter pairs at the Mount Vernon SAFE Training. SAFE will take participants as young twelve if they have a guardian participating.
The program offers a chance for mothers and daughters to bond, but by the final night, it was clear that even strangers had united into a sisterhood after 16 hours of emotionally draining and elevating lessons in self-defense.
At the end of Fight Night, the women gathered with their trainers to watch a video of their combat and eat a potluck dinner. Each woman was asked to speak about what she had learned.
“I feel more confident. I feel I can take care of some bad guy,” said Ligaya Fernandez.
Anna Barraza described the empowering feeling of shouting, “Stay back,” at an attacker. She said the confidence that lay behind that command “could make the difference.”
Many participants thanked the trainers. But the trainers said they were also grateful. “You recharge our batteries,” said Officer Tony Matos. “This really keeps us going for the next month.”
“We have fears too as police officers,” said Officer Christopher Guest. “We can’t be out there all the time. I feel better about the community knowing there’s women out there like you guys.”
“I’m in awe of everyone’s power, everyone’s confidence tonight,” said Hill. “[But] hopefully you’ll never have to use those techniques we taught you because your eyes are open. Your blinders are off.”
Beside the officers who trained her, Birmingham also wanted to thank Mount Vernon officer Greg Kotteman, who had alerted many participants to the opportunity through his crime prevention unit. She said she was grateful she had signed up for the class.
“You know that you’re going to do whatever it takes,” said Birmingham. “All of us … felt that way. It’s a really vivid reminder that you can be in that small percentage they don’t want to mess with.”