Back to school: Class teaches campus self-defense

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -- There is a nervous energy in the air as one by one, young women pin and push each other.  They are simulating assaults and learning what to do if these nightmares come true.

"I got followed home just driving home from the gas station," remembers Sadie Stewart, a 2016 James River High School graduate.

That recent encounter prompted Stewart to sign up for the Women's Empowerment class at Bushin Martial Arts on Brook Road.  She is about to begin her freshman year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she will also play volleyball.  The school is 500 miles away from her family and closest friends, so Stewart wanted an education in protection before her move.

"Don't discount that funny feeling about a person, place, any sort of timing," says Suzanne Nguyen, who started the class in the wake of attacks on college campuses everywhere.

The class focuses on what is called the Triangle of Victimization:  identifying the perpetrator, the target and the opportunity.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be sexually assaulted on a college campus this year, but surveys show only a fraction will actually go to police.  As the new semester begins, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Police remind all students who find themselves in an uncomfortable situation or witness one, to report it.

The department is investigating three sexual assaults near VCU that happened on August 21, 23 and 25.  In Charlottesville, police are searching for leads in a sexual assault that happened at the University of Virginia on August 20 during move-in weekend.

"There's a really different kind of bad guy that is going to approach women, and these techniques are really geared towards that," says Brandy Burkett.

Burkett, who is an adjunct psychology professor at the College of William & Mary, is a part of this class because her work often has her going to and from campus at all hours, sometimes when it is dark outside.

New laws passed in Virginia the past two years as part of increasing efforts to combat campus violence, but Burkett still advises all women to learn how to take matters into their own hands.

"Establishing a boundary and creating that and really having the mindset that this is my personal space and nobody's allowed in it," she describes one of the main themes of the class.

Nguyen says too often women have been taught to be polite, but in her class they learn to get over it when boundaries are crossed.

"You have that unsettled feeling.  Trust it," Nguyen stresses.  "I don't like this.  I have a plan.  This is what I'm going to do about it."

The class includes a series of exercises addressing 'What if?'  It also aims to help students like Stewart find strength in themselves.

"I like that it pushed me out of my comfort zone," Stewart says.  "I think that's my favorite part, that now I do feel  more comfortable with myself."

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