BAYFIELD – Women yell loudly as they deliver punches to pads held by instructors – shouts that include, “That’s my purse!” or “Back off!” or a series of expletives. The idea is to distract would-be thieves and attackers and to draw attention to dangerous situations.
The women were participating in Safe Sister, a local business offering self-defense classes. The class teaches defense while instilling a sense of confidence, several students said.
The course is one of a few in La Plata County, according to local law enforcement agencies. Nationally, more than one-third of women and one-quarter of men in the U.S. will experience sexual violence during their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Safe Sister intends to include men in future programs. For now, the organization hopes to empower women by teaching them strategies to stay safe and aware.
“My whole point of Safe Sister is not to scare people at all. I do not want them cowering in their cars or their homes,” said Kathy O’Toole, Safe Sister owner and instructor. “This is to give them some power and confidence.”
Local law enforcement agencies said they know of only a few self-defense programs in the county. A few are no longer offered, while others vary in frequency or enrollment requirements. For example, Fort Lewis College has a free multi-day program for women, but it’s open to students and faculty first, and then the general public. One day each year, a self-defense instructor holds a workshop at the Pine River Library in Bayfield. Farmington residents can take part in G.R.I.T. (Guts, Resilience, Intuition, Tenacity).
That possibly makes Safe Sister the only detective-led, multi-day, women-only program open to the general public in La Plata County.
O’Toole, who is a local detective in her day job, launched her first test run of the program in April. Each session has three, three-hour classes for $150. She began her second series of classes Jan. 13. The series will continue with sessions on Jan. 20 and 27.
Each session is split between a classroom-style study portion and a hands-on portion to practice techniques. Participants choose which topics they want to focus on during the program. Common topics include domestic violence, sexual assault, home security, scams, alcohol and drug-related situations, and weapons.
“No class will go over 12 (people) because I know, statistically, we’ll have women showing up who are already victims,” O’Toole said.
More than one-third of women in the U.S. frequently or occasionally worry about becoming a victim of sexual assault, according to Gallup’s 2018 Crime Poll.
More than 25 million adults have been raped in the U.S., and the crime carries a total economic burden of almost $3.1 trillion, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
In La Plata County, 230 people reached out to the Sexual Assault Services Organization in 2019, said Maura Doherty-Demko, SASO director. Most of those people, 190, identified as women.
“The thing that really gets me, with all of my years in law enforcement, is when women say, ‘I’m afraid,’” O’Toole said. “I just don’t want that anymore.”
Drawing from her experience as a detective, O’Toole can walk participants through how law enforcement conducts investigations and how people can legally defend themselves in unsafe situations.
“I think women really need to make sure that when they’re defending themselves, they’re doing it in a legal way,” said Shauna Unger, a Forest Lakes resident who participated in the first Safe Sister series.
Because the self-defense classes cover violent topics, participants might be reminded of past traumas, O’Toole said. She made the class women-only so that women feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics. In a room of men and women, sometimes voices get drowned out, she said.
“That is my entire point. ... We’ve got to be heard,” O’Toole said. “You’ve got to know your power. ... It’s going to take some time to get there, and sometimes women aren’t able to do that when there are men in the room.”
O’Toole knows the types of situations women have found themselves in. She gives tips on how to avoid them. For example, if someone lives alone, they can put a dog bowl and a leash with a studded collar outside next to their front door. A burglar might think twice, she said.
“The concept of allowing women to walk more confidently and with more awareness ... was very appealing to me,” said Amy Walker, 30, a Bayfield resident who attended the first series. “It was exciting to think that it can affect me, but it can also affect a lot of the ladies in my life.”
In the future, O’Toole might launch other programs, like a class for students of any gender entering the workforce or going to college.
For past participants who want more practice, she allows them to join the hands-on portion of future classes. She also encourages interested participants to pursue martial arts.
“Once you go into a self-defense class, you may never be the same because your world just kind of changes a bit,” Walker said. “If someone – dare I say, particularly a woman – (has) the opportunity, grab onto that and just see.”