In July 2021, an 11-year-old girl in Auburn met a man through the social media platform Snapchat. Over the course of the next eight days, the alleged attacker would groom the girl online, send nude pictures, exchange texts and push for an in-person meeting that culminated in him raping her.
This horrifying story is not the first such incident and, unfortunately, will not be the last. Just two months earlier in Pensacola, Florida, another 11-year-old fought off a would-be kidnapper.
The potential for girls to be victims of sexual violence or kidnapping makes it necessary for them to learn how to protect themselves. Thirty-four percent are under the age of 12 and 66% are between the ages of 12-17, and 1 in 9 girls will experience abuse or assault.
So how do we begin to address this? Just as other countries have done, we should use our educational system as a tool. K-12 schools already have a physical education curriculum. It's time we include a yearly self-defense unit taught from an empowered self-defense perspective to help our girls stay safe.
Empowered self-defense works in collaboration with self-defense that addresses real situations with simple and effective techniques. It involves discussing stereotypes, cultural norms and myths that girls navigate in their daily lives.
I participated in teaching middle school girls' self-defense in Fort Wayne for three years. Each year, the girls in my class showed an increase in confidence and awareness. More tellingly, for the girls who had the opportunity to experience the self-defense classes for a second year, they had gained muscle memory of the techniques I taught them.
In addition to learning physical techniques, de-escalation and situational awareness, the girls engaged in conversations about bullying, harassment and “what would I do if” scenarios.
For example, one girl came to me about a dance she was planning to attend. An adult had advised the girls not to refuse if a boy asked her to dance. As part of the empowered self-defense approach, we discussed how she could use her voice, set boundaries and stand up for herself. Though it may seem small, this dance-related confidence-building exercise is a crucial component of helping our girls protect themselves in all types of situations.
To be sure, self-defense training is not the answer to all youths' concerns, particularly girls. Nor is it our only strategy for preventing and stopping abuse, and worse. But it has the potential to be effective as part of a comprehensive physical education curriculum.
The current physical education curriculum is divided into several sections, such as volleyball and basketball. The practice and repetition spent on learning sports in physical education could be potentially spent on learning how to defend oneself.
Physical education teachers should be taught the ESD approach with basic self-defense techniques. Local female self-defense instructors could be contracted to teach the unit if needed. Just as muscle memory is created by repeatedly hitting a ball, self-defense and the girls' empowerment must be continually practiced.
Giovanna Follo, a Fort Wayne resident, is an associate professor at Wright State University-Lake Campus, a third-degree karate black belt, and Level 8 Commando Krav Maga instructor.