Crime & Justice

Aftermath of Chelsea King killing: Advocates push for self-defense training

Impact self-defense class
Impact self-defense class
Courtesy Impact Personal Safety

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Thirty-year-old John Albert Gardner is a repeat sex offender accused in the death of 17-year-old Chelsea King. The high school honors student from San Diego County went for a jog in a park near her house last month and never came back. Police found her body in a shallow grave. Gardner is accused of attacking and killing other teenage girls as well. Chelsea King’s parents are calling for stricter laws to prevent repeat offenders from striking again. But Jessica’s Law, Megan’s Law and Amber alerts are already on the books, named for other young crime victims. Some advocates of self-defense training say another approach is needed as well. They want more women and girls empowered with training to respond in violent situations.

Kendall Sallay graduated recently from Poway High School – the same school where Chelsea King would have graduated in a few months. "You know, it’s terrifying," she said. "It is terrifying for the whole community."

So Sallay initiated a petition drive to get self-defense courses taught in high schools as a physical education credit. "We want it to be part of the academic curriculum. This is something that would be so useful to girls more than games like over the line or other games that seem to be popular in high school P.E. courses."

Kendall Sallay is in college now. She says self-defense is actually an important college prep course. A U.S. Justice Department report says nearly one in five women experiences rape or attempted rape while in college. Self-defense instructor Ellen Snortland says personal safety courses should be routine as fire drills.

"How many times do we have fire drills in school? How many fires have you been in? I’ve never been in one," said Snortland. "But we don’t say, 'We better stop doing fire drills because the odds are so slim.' However, we are confronted with crime and entertainment with crime but we don’t talk about the tools to use if something happens – which I think is absurd."

Snortland is the author of “Beauty Bites Beast.” The book teaches ways to be assertive and protect yourself. Snortland also teaches an age-appropriate self-defense course to kids ages 6 to 12. She says self-defense is a necessary safety skill – like swimming.

"If you don’t know how to swim, you have to be scared of all water. If you know how to swim, you know if the water is too rough for you. You know if it’s something you can’t handle. So I’m basically promoting the equivalent of teaching everyone how to tread water, how to get to shore. You know, just basics."

To avoid or even stop an attack, the basics include using your voice first.

"Three out of four times, if a woman does anything, the assailant will flee," said Lisa Gatea. Gaeta heads Impact Self-Defense in Los Angeles. The non-profit program teaches women and men of all ages, sizes and fitness levels to protect themselves. "Three out of four times, if a woman yells loudly, calls for help just even that simply, the assailant will flee."

She also recommends shouting out descriptions to identify an attacker.

"I say describe the man. 'I don’t know this man. I need help. He’s wearing blue jeans, a black shirt, a baseball cap, tennis shoes,' and you start to describe him. Because that way 'earwitnesses' will hear you and they’ll say, 'Oh yeah.' They’ll see the guy or maybe they’ll report it later. And the guy’s not going to stay around to let you describe him."

Self-defense courses train you to take simple steps to recognize and defuse dangerous situations – even if you’re scared. And as Gaeta explains, if push literally comes to shove...

"What we teach in a confrontation situation is if he goes to grab you, we do what’s called a 'heel-palm' – which just the heel of your palm shoved right up into his face. Under his chin, if you can get under his chin you can knock him out. And then knees to the groin. I mean, we only teach two targets: face and groin, face and groin."

Kandall Sallay says she and her friends learning simple techniques to protect themselves would help them feel safe and empowered.

"If we can give women and girls a new set of skills, hopefully we could see some change," said Sallay. "We could see some results. Women can stick up for themselves ‘cause they’ll know how."

Poway High School officials say they’ll meet with Sallay soon. She and other self defense advocates say they’re working to have schools across California offer personal safety courses.