With a chorus of “NO!”, three Santa Cruz High School girls spin on mats kicking at a would-be attacker’s knees. Under the guidance of safety trainer Leonie Sherman, these students are receiving an intense and effective lesson in self defense as part of their regular Physical Education class. Part applying common sense, part martial arts techniques and part gritty reality addressing the challenges faced by our youth every day, the Self Defense/Safety Training courses are the result of a cooperative relationship between the City’s Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, the Santa Cruz Education Foundation and Santa Cruz City Schools.
The program was the brainchild of current SCCS Trustee Cynthia Hawthorne during her tenure as president of the Foundation. Implemented in 2007 in response to a series of increasingly alarming incidents affecting students en route to and from school and on the heels of a brutal assault in the Harvey West Park area, Foundation leaders sought a way to meet the state requirement for self-defense training in a way that would have a real impact on students, providing tools they could employ in their daily lives. The program coaches students to be aware of their surroundings, to choose safe situations over the risky, to carry themselves confidently and to respond to physical threats instinctively and effectively. Coaches emphasize avoiding risk, returning to a safe place, how to get help and using physical response only as a last resort. The Foundation provided the initial funding to launch the program at Mission Hill Middle School and Santa
Cruz High School. Through grants and support from Santa Cruz City Schools, the program is now offered in Physical Education classes at Mission Hill, Santa Cruz High, Branciforte Middle School, Harbor High School and Soquel High School.
Recently, trainers Leonie Sherman and Daniel Stonebloom worked with students at Santa Cruz High School. The sessions were particularly poignant in this second second-period PE class – because just two weeks prior to the first session, Santa Cruz High School junior Tyler Tenorio had also been a student in the class. Due to the loss of grant funding and an unfortunate bureaucratic hiccup, the program was nearly lost altogether, and didn’t begin until after the loss of Tyler. Whether the training would have saved Tyler’s life cannot be determined. But the irony of the timing was not lost on students, and certainly resonated with his classmates still shaken by his death in a gang-related stabbing incident just yards away from the high school.
On this particular day, the students were divided by gender on two sides of the gym. Their voices reverberating, Leonie worked with the girls on
“ground defense”, coaching them in safe fall techniques, firm vocal strategies and how to defend themselves while on the ground, whether an attacker (or attackers) stays on their feet or when pinned.
The talking sessions that week not only included conversations about their classmate’s death by violence but also the gang rape of a Richmond teenager in an alcohol-related incident at a school homecoming dance. Some of the trainer’s advice is straightforward, “If you’re in a safe place, do not go to a less safe place” and some is couched in the reality of teenage life, “if you are going to be around alcohol, always have a buddy and a plan to get home.”
Across the gym, Stonebloom directed the young men into two lines to alternate practicing attack and defense with head grabs and strategically directed maneuvers to vulnerable eyes and noses. While there was some roughhousing and chuckles, at the slightest gesture from their instructor, the students fell into a respectful silence to listen to direction.
Both instructors, in their conversations about Tenorio’s death, were frank that once engaged with armed attackers, these techniques, even employed by the most experienced martial expert may not have saved his life. But the emphasis on awareness of surroundings, on what it really means to be safe, how to
avoid and deflect confrontation – those lessons carried new meaning and great impact for these young students.
Santa Cruz City Schools recently stepped forward to ensure that the safety training program would carry forward for the rest of the 2009/10 school year. The district, however, will face difficult choices in the coming months as they grapple with the need to cut $3.4 million as a result of state budget cuts. The future of safety training in our schools beyond this school year is uncertain, though certainly valued by students, staff and the community.