Straddling five blocks of Broad Street in gritty North Philadelphia, Temple University is pretty much as urban as you can get. The dense campus, filled with a mix of old and new construction connected by busy boulevards and tree-lined walkways, sits in a rough neighborhood. And the students who attend the school attest to being up for the challenge—tough, vigilant, and hardworking.
But even with these qualities, a little extra toughening up never hurt anybody. Which in part is why, when self-defense courses are offered each semester for two college credits, women at Temple jump at the opportunity to sign up, although it might mean "green-carding in"—requesting the instructor's permission.
Temple students aren't alone. Self-defense classes are part of the curriculum at many colleges—some for credit, some for fun, some coed, and some just for women. They're offered at schools both urban and rural, and they teach a mix of physical skills and life lessons. They've been a popular addition for students who are concerned about their own safety. Temple instructor Michelle Harmon acknowledges that some students take the course there because it's their first time living in a city. But she adds: "This course is not in response to any kind of crime activity or anything along those lines. This course is geared more toward empowering women in their general pursuit for their life skills."
On the last day of class before finals, Harmon addresses two dozen young women sitting, legs outstretched, on the floor of a gymnasium at Temple. "Overall, over the course of the class, do you feel more empowered to make decisions for your safety?" she asks. The answer from her students is a series of emphatic nods.
Harmon's class is part of a national self-defense curriculum called the Rape Aggression Defense Systems program, or RAD, that's taught at 1,200 universities and colleges around the country. It was developed at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., in 1989 by a campus police officer, Larry Nadeau. "The RAD system made self-defense education really an option, where it was not in the past," Nadeau says. "Educating your public about the potential threats that exist socially on and around campus is pivotal."
In class, RAD students learn a combination of typical physical moves—wrist grabs, knee strikes, and so on—along with college-oriented life lessons. Temple's Harmon sums up the lessons she is teaching this way: "What this course helps them do is look at their decisions: Is this a wise decision for me? Should I be going out with this person? Should I trust this person to hold my drink while I go to the bathroom?"
In fact, many instances of crime on college campuses involve alcohol. Harmon reviews an assignment where students go to Spring Fling, a popular campus festival, and observe their classmates' behavior, which often includes daytime drinking. (Earlier in the same semester, students had also gone to a bar, sober, to watch their peers, in that case during spring break.) "It definitely made me think a lot of what you looked like when you were drinking," says Sage Sinopoli, a senior majoring in broadcast telecommunications and mass media.
Harmon then switches gears to review a more physical component of her class—a simulated attack in which each woman is grabbed by heavily padded male aggressors and has to fight her way out. Students typically don't hold back. "When I had a hold of them, I realized I was grabbing them forcefully and really knocking them on the ground with head butts and kicks and really trying to beat the crap out of them," Elizabeth Lovejoy Knauss, a broadcast major, tells her classmates.
Harmon calls the simulation an opportunity for the women to use their skills in a "pseudo" real-life experience. "When I say 'pseudo,' we aren't going to jump them out on the street," she says. "It's a very controlled environment."
Three hundred miles west, at another urban campus—this one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's second-biggest city—self-defense students do, literally, get jumped on the street. At the University of Pittsburgh, male and female students take self-defense courses together using a method created by Curtis Smith, a Pitt police officer. Smith's method—it's called "Buy Yourself a Minute," or BYAM—teaches students how to avoid dangerous situations and also how to get out of them. Smith doesn't sugarcoat his lessons: He prepares his students by acting out purse snatchings and shootings. And for their final, Smith's students walk the streets of Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood at night in clusters. They are armed with Silly String (to represent pepper spray) and are subjected to simulated attacks, to which they must respond appropriately.