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Watch out, creeps: Women ready to fend off assailants after Shirley self-defense training

Shirley Assistant Town Administrator Aubrey Thomas (wearing red gloves) prepares to confront two “attackers,” Groton Police Officer Omar Connor (left) and Shirley Police Officer Brett Rand (behind), one of the certified instructors who conducted the four-session RAD self-defense classes held in Shirley in October. The program was sponsored by the Shirley PD, with assistance from Bolton PD and the UMass Police.
Shirley Assistant Town Administrator Aubrey Thomas (wearing red gloves) prepares to confront two “attackers,” Groton Police Officer Omar Connor (left) and Shirley Police Officer Brett Rand (behind), one of the certified instructors who conducted the four-session RAD self-defense classes held in Shirley in October. The program was sponsored by the Shirley PD, with assistance from Bolton PD and the UMass Police.
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SHIRLEY — Fending off one attacker is scary enough, but after four weeks of RAD (rape, aggression, defense) classes, women at the recent final session were revved up and ready to take on two.

The Shirley Police Department sponsored the program, offered free to girls and women ages 14 and up this month. The three-hour classes were held in the Lura A. White Elementary School gym.

Fifteen women signed up, including a mother and daughter from Fitchburg who took the course together and three town employees: Assistant Town Administrator Aubrey Thomas, Public Safety Administrative Assistant Cathy Mayotte and Police Department desk clerk Katie Hawthorne.

The RAD system of physical defense is being taught at many colleges and universities and it was recently offered to seniors at one area high school as an alternative to gym classes.

All RAD classes are taught by certified instructors. Heading up the recent session was Shirley Police Officer Brett Rand, who also portrayed one of the “attackers” each woman faced off against in the final session. The other was Groton Police Officer Omar Connor.

Three separate scenarios tested the skills the women had learned over the past month, including basic techniques such as stances, yelling, movement, blocking, striking and kicking. In action, those terms take on more meaning and seemed incredibly real as the scenarios played out.

The teaching team also included University of Massachusetts Police Capt. Nancy O’Laughlin and Bolton Police Officer Erica Abro. They offered expert advice, helped the women don protective gear before the staged attacks, and coached them close-up during the events, like coaches at a boxing match.

All participants wore specialized training equipment. For the women: head-hugging helmets with face masks, knee, elbow, arm and hand protectors. For the two men involved in the exercises: vests, groin pads (the area where a targeted kick is said to be singularly effective) and other protective gear. Strategically placed, padded mats were put on the floor.

Sensitive, sore or recent injuries on the women’s bodies were spotted with blue tape and shouted out, areas to be avoided during the attack scenarios.

After warming up and suiting up, the women waited in the hall. They entered the gym, one by one, knowing that two men were waiting to attack them. Faces covered, you couldn’t see their expressions, but body language said it all. It’s an emotional moment. Tense, ready. Can we do this? Yes, we can!

In the first scenario, the woman is walking to the train station. The men come at her casually. Does she know what time the next train is due? At some point they close in, taunting her. She strikes out, kicking, screaming, fighting. When the one closest to her is knocked off balance, she runs away.

In the next scenario, the woman stands at an ATM as the men come up behind her. The woman turns to face them. In the final test, they knock her to the ground.

Each scenario has programmed responses, but the idea is to strike back, keep on fighting. Stomp your foot, stick out your elbows, keep yelling, “No!” Above all, do something, the attacker won’t expect it. There are “don’ts,” too. Don’t panic. Don’t touch them until they touch you.

Abro stresses this point at the start, and it applies to all three scenarios. When you sense the attacker behind you, turn around. “You can yell at him but don’t make a move until he does. Then, “go all in.”

Preparing to leave after her test was done, Carolina Beard, of Shirley, said every young woman heading off to college should take this course. She’s considering it for her own 12-year old daughter, when she’s old enough, she said.

Lianna Condon, a Fitchburg resident originally from Shirley, said that RAD training can benefit women of all ages. She took the course with her daughter, Selah, a junior at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School.

Each participant completing the course received a certificate and a logo T-shirt. And as the final session wrapped, pizza for all was given out. Police Chief Samuel Santiago said he hopes to offer the program again.

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