WOONSOCKET — In an age when teenagers direct far too much of their attention to their cellphones, Dan Guernon and Elizabeth Kerrigan are trying to get them to look up and be aware of their surroundings.
Guernon, the owner of Dan’s Martial Arts Center at 1 South Main St., and Kerrigan, the city’s Parks and Recreation superintendent, put together a 5-week-long self-defense program that gave 25 local girls in grades 6 to 12 skills that could keep them safe when danger confronts them.
Kerrigan said the participating students paid a fee for part of the class’ cost and city’s Police Department covered the rest under a grant award.
“We put it together because statistics show that girls at this age can go missing or be assaulted,” Kerrigan said.
It is in middle school and high school when girls begin to get more freedom to go out with their friends, go to work or start dating, Kerrigan explained.
“This is the age when they are not with their mom and dad all the time,” she said.
The program developed by Guernon, a self-defense instructor in the Kenpo technique who opened his studio with his wife, Tanya, last fall, gives girls the tools and strategies needed to get out of a dangerous situation without being harmed, according to Kerrigan.
“It also gives them the awareness of how not to get into a dangerous situation,” she said.
Open to city residents or taxpayers, the class drew a mix of middle school and high
school participants as well as five members of Woonsocket Girl Scout Troop 324.
Lt. Brad Scully of the Woonsocket Police Department, a ground defense instructor for department members, also joined the classes during the program and gave the students tips on personal safety and how to avoid conflicts.
Tanya Guernon said one of the main themes of the class was to help the girls be more “situationally aware.”
“You have to be aware of everything going on around you at all times,” she said.
The idea is to keep thinking safety all the time, no matter where you are and what you may be doing.
“If you are out walking in an area that is not well lit, you are not going to go walk between parked cars,” she said. “And if you have something that you can use to protect yourself like a pen, you have to know how to use it to keep someone away,” she added.
During the classes, the students were taught how to react to an attack in a manner that could provide them the chance to create a moment were a safe escape is possible. They were also taught how to appear less like a target and more like a potential problem for someone who might be considering an attack.
To practice such skills, the class taught the girls specific defensive maneuvers, postures and strikes that could be all the difference they need in a dangerous or life-threatening situation.
On Thursday as the students participated in the program’s final training session, Dan Guernon suited up in padded protective gear so his students could pummel him with kicks and stiffened palms as he lunged to grab hold of a hand or wrist.
The explosive defensive techniques were intended to create that moment of shock or disbelief that might help ward off someone who is a threat.
As she watched her daughter, Kaitlyn, 13, battle with Guernon on the padded workout floor, Bonnie Marcoux said she thought the instructed techniques were “amazing.”
“I think they all need to know this,” she said of the young people in the room. “It’s all about situational awareness,” Marcoux said. “They are always facing their phones and sometimes aren’t aware of their surroundings. I don’t think they are thinking about the dangers around them or about safety,” she said.
After taking her turn breaking free from Guernon’s grasp and planting both strikes and kicks on his padding, Kaitlyn said she felt “powerful.”
“I’m taking the class because there are lot of dangerous people out there generally and I just want to be able to protect myself and protect the people that I love,” she said.
To be safe, Kaitlyn said she learned that if someone came after her, she shouldn’t just try to cover up and block the assault but “react” instead, and hit back as hard as she can. It could be the difference in getting away, she added.
Guernon also showed the class members how to use something like a kubaton, a small stick-like object on a key chain or a pen to jab at someone attacking them, and if they are 18 or older, how to use pepper spray to keep someone away.
None of the techniques are intended to be used in a fight with another student or for fooling around and Guernon also told his students they must obey laws governing self-defense and personal protection and only to use defensive responses on someone posing a threat.
The techniques they learned could be an important skill to have if they are faced by a real threat, he noted.
“I thought them an arsenal of basic maneuvers and also that if they are challenged, to think for themselves if they are put into a dangerous situation,” he said. “Situational awareness is important because it will keep you out of an altercation,” Guernon said.
The students learned that conflicts usually begin with words, and when the words run out what comes next is physical aggression,” he said.
“There are steps you can take that will keep you from becoming involved in a physical attack,” he said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75