As the documentary “Power-Up” commences, Ella Redmond ’17 stands on a black mat in the middle of a gym. Her classmates surround the edge of the mat, offering words of encouragement as she takes a deep breath. Then, it begins.
The music swells and a man over a foot taller than her, wearing a helmet covering his face and giant body pads, grabs Redmond and whips her around like a ragdoll. She is limp for a second, then begins viciously kneeing, slapping, and gouging at the man, doing anything she can to get free and she slips out of his grip.
This is “Power-Up,” a 2016 documentary about a self-defense class at Wellesley High School.
Power-Up is self defense class offered to upperclassmen at the High School, linked with the Impact Boston non-profit organization. Introduced by Power-Up coordinator and Fitness and Health teacher Ms. Kathleen Brophy, the class, covered in Wellesley Public Media’s 2016 documentary, teaches self defense against sexual, verbal, and physical attacks, with a focus on sexual violence.
The class offers a unique opportunity to open dialogue about sexuality and women’s roles in a climate where both those things are ever changing, and always challenged. According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, twenty percent of female college students of the past four years were sexually assaulted, while eleven percent of high school students and six percent of middle school students reported being sexually assaulted.
For instructor Ms. Kathleen Brophy, the class is designed so that “people walk away with things they feel equipped to live the kind of life they want to live.” Naturally, each student forges their own path within the course, but for most students in the nearly entirely female class, the end result resembles a feeling of confidence and ability to address sexual attacks.
“I took the class because I always wanted to be independent and self sufficient,” said Sinclaire Vandervoort ’17, who took the class last spring. “At first I thought that this was just a self defence class, but it is so much more than that. I’m grateful for that this class has shifted my perspective and taught me to think about these things; It’s a necessity, I think, that everyone should learn to think about this.”
Mental health counselor Ms. Kris Horigan was used as a support advisor to the class. “I was there to assist anyone who needed any sort of help or assistance due to feeling anxious or if any of the content triggered old feelings or thoughts.”
Horigan added, “Something I really found unique to the class was the way students supported each other. If anybody brought up personal stories everyone was open and understanding.”
Another unique factor was the way the class came together. “They certainly grew as a class and individuals. “Every student joined in to the bond even if they were not ever friends before. What made the class successful was the bond between the students,” Horigan said.
While the class discusses the heavy topics of rape and abuse within the safe confines of the school walls, they do have pertinent implications beyond them.
For some students, like Kaitlin Yee ’18, this relevance is preparedness for the near future. “With college coming up in a year I think it’s beneficial to learn how to protect myself in a demanding and difficult situation.” Brophy echoed the need for self defense training at the high school level, saying “The younger we can become informed, the better.”
Yee also believes the course is a good opportunity for everyone to learn about self defense. “No matter what gender you identify as, it is good to know how to react in a demanding situation. It doesn’t matter who is intimidating you, you just want to know how to protect yourself,” said Yee
The Power-Up class addresses this need for preparation by providing a possible method of defense for assaults. According to a National Institute of Justice report, actions such as attacking or struggling against their attacker, running away, and verbally warning the attacker, all topics covered in the Power-Up class, can reduce the risk of sexual violence by more than 80%.
For others though, the implications of this class are immediate.
Vandervoort recognized her change in perspective from Power Up after a class last year. Brophy showed the students a video that displayed a verbatim interview filmed by a psychologist traveling to different colleges interviewing ‘frat’ boys. The film discussed how ‘frat’ boys target young, vulnerable, innocent looking girls to take advantage of them.
“It really shook us all up,” said Vandervoort.
The bell rang and Vandervoort, still rattled by the video, walked the halls to her next class, Pre Calculus.
“Someone in that class that I was sitting across from was going off about someone in their life and just dismissing it and said something along the lines of ‘she’s such a f***ing c***,’” said Vandervoort. “I just had this moment of ‘oh my god that frat boy in the video didn’t care and neither does my peer.’ We kind of just assume that in Wellesley we are liberal, that we are good, we are on top of this and that nothing happens here. But stuff does happen here.”
As with any sticky subject like rape or sexual abuse, there are always drawbacks to simplifying such complicated topics. How can the class, which was created in [200?] stay up to date with the current narrative of rape? How can we teach females the skills to help defend themselves without implying that on their own, they are inadequate? These are questions Brophy has in mind and strives to answer while updating the curriculum and keeping it current.
For the meantime, however, as Vandervoort said, “talking about these things is greater than staying silent.”