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Rites of Spring

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Springtime has its rituals, including affluent parents touring college campuses with their daughters and sons to "shop" for the best college or university. Mom and Dad scope out the campus their progeny will call home for the next 4 years. They visit the dorms or off-campus housing. And since all parents want their children to be safe, they might even ask about campus security even though they are entrusting their defensively illiterate kids into an environment that can't realistically keep them safe at all times or under all circumstances.

Defensively illiterate? Yes. Parents inadvertently ignore a vital safety consideration if they focus on campus security without taking into account their child's personal physical literacy. If Jane doesn't know how to physically defend herself, she's illiterate. Sorry. In our personal safety community, we believe Jane or Joey should have started learning how to defend themselves from bullies or other predators much earlier than college, perhaps in their early grade school years when we start teaching traffic safety and water safety skills.

What is physical literacy? While literacy is commonly used as a term for reading and writing, let's use it as an analogy for certain practices that allow people to be safer in the world, physically. Physically literate people know that washing hands around food preparation reduces illness. We teach our children traffic safety at a young age so they can negotiate streets in the safest ways possible. They learn the traffic light colors and to look both ways before crossing the street. Similarly, before Ralph Nader championed vehicle safety measures, many of us rambled around in cars without seatbelts or emergency airbags. But in a relatively short span of years, legislation required that auto manufacturers not only include seatbelts as standard equipment but made using driver and passenger seatbelts mandatory. Why? Because the use of seatbelts reduces the risk of injury and death.

To send a young person into the world without preparing for the possibility of predators is like sending your loved one onto the highways with no drivers education in a car without seatbelts or airbags. Or like sending your son and daughter onto the streets on a motorcycle without a helmet. Or a lamb into the forest with no knowledge about the wolf. The tricky part in cases of campus violence is the proverbial "wolf in sheep's clothing" scenario. The wolves look innocent, and most likely think of themselves as "obviously guys that no woman would have sex with if she were conscious," as Gloria Steinem puts it. Why else use a date rape drug?

In April of this year, during another dark spring ritual, there was at least one drug-related rape at the University of Southern California at a Lambda Chi fraternity house party. Like many other people and institutions, it appears USC doesn't like to consider rape as a reasonably foreseeable event, despite statistics that point to rape being rather frequent: 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in the US are victims of rape. ( HYPERLINK "http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/crime/rape-sexual-violence/victims-perpetrators.htm" http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/crime/rape-sexual-violence/victims-perpetrators.htm.) And according to a report in 2000 for the National Institute of Justice written by Bonnie S. Fisher, Francis T. Cullen, and Michael G. Turner, 1 in 4 college women experience completed or attempted rape during their college years. (http://www.oneinfourusa.org)

 But to focus solely on USC would be a mistake, like chopping at one diseased tree when the problem is with an entire forest of denial by individuals, families, and educational institutions. Many campuses try to take care of the aftermath of a publicized rape by hiring more campus cops or installing more, newer or better emergency systems. A sorority house director on a major campus says, "These young women come here from all sorts of places and don't know anything about defending themselves. When there is a rape, they are fearful of coming forward even if they know something because they are afraid of the fraternity guys. And my school is afraid of losing enrollments if the on-campus rapes get too much attention."

Everyone needs to grow up and accept the fact that there are predators in the world, and college campus are favorite hunting grounds. It only takes one rapist to tarnish the image of many kind-hearted college age men. After all, "good guy" or "rapist" is not tattooed on foreheads.

Self-defense advocate Erin Weed wrote the book "Girls Fight Back!" and promotes safety programs because her sorority sister was murdered in 2001. Impact Personal Safety of Los Angeles, Prepare, Inc. in New York City, and full force, full impact training programs all over the country train adults and teach classes at high schools so the new freshman arrive at their schools trained to handle violence emergencies. To not prepare for violence is irresponsible. Regardless of age or gender, humans -- of all sizes, shapes and backgrounds -- are fully capable of being dangerous toward predators but they must be taught. Just as human beings are not born to swim, almost all people can learn swimming. The same is true for self-defense.

What if preparing for violence is just as responsible as acknowledging the possibility of a car accident or fire? When we use seatbelts, we are not inviting car accidents. We are simply being accountable for the possibility that car accidents happen. We have fire drills so we don't have to figure out what to do when the fire is happening. Drilling for violence actually makes one less of a target.

Here's a springtime list we recommend for parents scoping out schools:

1. Does your daughter's high school have self-defense training? If so, have her take it BEFORE she leaves home for college. (We want sons to be safe too, and thankfully, most realize they have the potential to fight back. Not so for many daughters.) Public schools in California are required to at least offer self-defense as a P.E. option.

2. When you visit a campus in the spring, or even the fall when you leave your student, insist that the campus NOT depend solely on "rescue" strategies for safety. And as much as campus law enforcement would like to prevent sexual assault, the only person that's always with your daughter is herself.

3. Ask your student to promise they will find a designated sober party-person. The designees can take turns from party to party.This "appointee" will keep track of who is doing what, where and with whom at a party or social function. If a young woman is slipped a date rape drug, and is rendered defenseless, there'll be someone there to help her. Tragically, predators are very canny at sneak attacks and sneaky tactics like spiking punch.

4. Does the school have adrenalin based, realistic scenario self-defense training? While most self-defense courses are useful, the best training involves realistic scenarios where the student has the opportunity to experience what it takes to fight back under stress. The body gets trained to react. Girls' socialization also needs to be factored in. While "sugar and spice and everything nice" makes for polite females, they need to be given some chili peppers -- and some spices with bite -- to protect themselves. Using a fully padded mock assailant in self-defense training is similar to using a swimming pool for swim lessons or a car for driver's education.

Perhaps the recent springtime rape at USC will serve to encourage families to learn more about protecting their kids. The best way is to insist that schools provide physical self-defense education so the students learn how to protect themselves.

Ellen Snortland is on the board of Impact Personal Safety in Los Angeles, author of "Beauty Bites Beast"and speaks about personal safety for corporations, parent groups and educational institutions as the "Safety Godmother."
Gavin de Becker is an expert on preventing violence, and bestselling author of "The Gift of Fear", and "Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe."