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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

High School Girls Taught How to 'No' Their Attacker

May 27, 1999|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA PAULA — Fourteen-year-old Fernanda Zuniga learned some skills at school this week that she hopes she will never need to use--ways to defend herself against a rapist.

During a one-hour self-defense class at Santa Paula High School on Tuesday, Fernanda and about 60 other ninth- and 10-grade girls practiced kicking, hitting and shouting at make-believe attackers. They worked their way out of chokeholds and yanked their arms from tight grips. They talked about trusting their intuition when they sense danger and avoiding men who act aggressively toward women. And they learned that nobody ever asks to be raped.

"Sexual assault is the fault of one person and one person only," Linda Livingston of the Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence told the girls. "And that is the person who assaulted you."

It doesn't matter what a victim wears, what she drinks or if she flirts, Livingston said. The fault is still the rapist's. But Livingston urged the teenagers to consider their decisions carefully anyway, and to always pay close attention to their surroundings.

Livingston presents self-defense classes to high school girls throughout Ventura County, at no cost to the school. The session is an abbreviated version of a four-hour self-defense class the coalition offers to the community.

In 1997, there were 183 rapes reported in Ventura County, Livingston said. Though women of all ages can be raped, those most vulnerable are between 14 and 24.

"They feel immortal at that age, and they don't realize the repercussions of their actions," she said. "It's important for them to create boundaries."

Physical education teacher Kathy Thomason said the self-defense class helps raise the girls' self-esteem in a meaningful way, and reminds them that they are worth protecting.

During one of the exercises, Livingston instructed the girls to stand up and yell "No" as loudly as they could.

But only a few shouts could be heard in the large gymnasium. Most of the girls either giggled or said "No" in normal voices.

Livingston shook her head and tried again. "I want a guttural sound, not a word," she urged them. "Remember, your best weapon is your mind. But your next best weapon is your mouth. Yelling conveys power." She warned them that they had to say "no" before they could take further steps to protect themselves.

So the girls took deep breaths and stood tall. And on the count of three, they let out a forceful "No!" in unison.

Livingston also discouraged them from looking vulnerable. "It's about how you carry yourself," she said. "It's about your voice and your eyes. It's about your whole demeanor." But most important, Livingston said, young women need to feel confident.

"I can't stress how important it is to have self-respect and self-esteem," she said. "That's when it all starts."

FYI

The Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence offers a variety of services, including a 24-hour hotline, shelter for battered women and their children, support groups and counseling services for victims and their families. For more information, call 654-8141.

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