Modesto self-defense class teaches moms, girls how to escape attacker

naustin@modbee.comAugust 3, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Sure, a swift twist, a merciless elbow and a hard kick to the knee can thwart an attack, but the larger lesson of the women's self-defense class was not to be a victim.

"There's no reason we should ever be at the will of a male just because he's bigger and stronger than us," said 16-year-old Brittany Barbieri, as she steadily pummeled the padded hands of partner Haley Steele, also 16.

"If something ever happens — and I hope it doesn't — but if it does, I can do something," Haley said.

A half-dozen mothers at the Full Force Personal Training seminar Saturday said they brought their daughters to the private studio in Modesto in the hope they'd learn exactly that.

"She's going to college soon," said Vicky Johnson of Waterford as Ashley, 16, brushed off her mom's clearly half-hearted choke hold. "There's enough crime anywhere, that learning some common- sense protection would be wise," Johnson said.

Lorena Vega of Hughson brought four members of her Girl Scout troop and two of their moms. She said she wanted the girls, including her 12-year-old, to be aware of risks around them. "With all the situations out there these days, I want her to be ready," Vega said.

Vega's daughter, Karla, practiced getting away from bad-guy clutches with her mom. Karla said instructor Nate Taylor kept it simple: "We have to learn the fundamentals."

Taylor talked about weak points to strike,and why popping a knee was necessary — not mean.

"If I just push his hands away like this, look what happens, he's right back at me," he demonstrated with a large assistant. "Be aggressive. Kick the knee out of the socket and get away," he said.

Alcohol and drugs can blunt pain, so disabling an attacker can be essential to having time to run, Taylor said. Other advice:

• If a stranger asks for the time, do not pull out a cell phone and lean in toward the stranger to show the time.

• Park close to shops, and at night park by a light.

Teen girls need to be especially careful, he said. "Just be very aware of your surroundings and the company you keep."

Teaching her daughter to defend herself from bullies was the aim of Maria Tabarez of Hughson, she said in Spanish. Valeria Tabarez, 14, said she had seen others beaten by bullies. "They usually end up getting really hurt," she said.

A sense of foreboding on a shivery late-night walk back to her car was the reason Cyndi Velasco of Ripon gave for coming to the class. "Something just felt creepy. I kept thinking all the 'what ifs?' " she said. "It's just to be safe, feel prepared."

Velasco said she has two young daughters, and plans to bring them when they're older. "Right now, we live in a time where you can't go anywhere," she said.

She wants her daughters to grow up to be self-reliant. "I want them to know it's OK to protect yourself, and want to be strong, and to not be that victim," she said.

Oralva Juarez of Hughson said she and daughter Soria, 12, were going home to try the moves they learned on Dad.

"I just wanted her to have an idea. We're out by ourselves a lot," Juarez said, adding that the surest move they learned involved kicking guys "where it hurts" to get away.

Also at the three-hour event, which attracted about 30 participants, was a table full of tactical weapons designed for women. Dora Nutting manned a Damsel in Defense booth with pink stun guns, pepper sprays and emergency extras. Flashing lights, screaming hotel door alarms and even bright pink jumper cables give "us girlie girls" a way to be safe, yet stylish, Nutting said.

She gave an air demonstration of the stun gun's trademark electric sizzle to reinforce that she had scared away a beggar who became threatening.

"He went away, real quick," she said.

Not all encounters end that easily. Assistant instructor Makayla Whitney said she and Taylor work with several women who have been crime victims. Part of the healing process is to teach them to fend off that same attack, going over and over the moves until they can move past the fear, Whitney said.

For Whitney, learning how to avoid danger helps as much as proficiency in counterattacks. "I have more faith in myself, having the awareness I do," she said. "Prevention is the most effective way to defend yourself."

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339.


• RESIST: A 2004 Florida State University study found women who fought back were far more likely to avoid being raped and reduced the risk of serious injury.

• THINK AHEAD: Have keys in hand walking to the car or door to avoid fumbling around a purse while vulnerable. Know where the exits are and safest routes. Walk purposefully.

• BE WARY: If your neck hairs are on end or your stomach is nervous, stifle that urge to be polite and unperturbed — get moving. Once in your car, lock the doors, turn the key and put the car in gear. Save stashing packages and sending texts for a safer place.

• BE UNEXPECTED: Being followed by a car? Turn around and stride in the opposite direction — that's reverse for him. Feel free to walk in the landscaping to avoid sidewalk danger spots. Use a cell phone to telegraph that you're about to meet someone who's very close.

• BE RUTHLESS: Groin kicks and eye pokes are fair game when you need them. Elbow strikes pack a punch. Aim for insteps, kick knees out, punch throats, stomp stilettos — go ahead, be nasty.

• SCREAM: Not only will this draw attention, it will force you to breathe each time. Panicked people tend to hold their breath and get light-headed.

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