Fort Worth, Texas,
09:01 AM

New Self-Defense Class Empowers Teens with Intellectual Disabilities to be a ‘Hard Target’

In a shelled out floor of the South Tower at Cook Children’s Medical Center, the thud of kicks and punches echo off drywall and concrete. Loud and confident, the words “No! No! No!” ricochet through the room.

It may sound like a melee, but this is part of a unique program that launched last fall at the Jane Justin School at Cook Children’s Child Study Center. The program began as a R.A.D. self-defense course and has since evolved into a curriculum called ‘Hard Target.’ The 12-hour class teaches self-defense to students with developmental and learning disabilities in the Center’s Upper School.

On this morning, four female students are participating in a drill. The scenario includes being attacked at an ATM and sadly, because of their disabilities, it’s a situation they’re more likely to find themselves in than the average person.

“We know that individuals with developmental disabilities are three to five times more likely to become victims of bullying, assault and sexual assault,” said Joyce Elizabeth Mauk, M.D., CEO and medical director of the Child Study Center.

According to a recent investigative series by NPR called ‘Abused and Betrayed’, the rate of sexual assault among people with intellectual disabilities may be even higher. Reporter Joseph Shapiro said in his report that unpublished data from the U.S. Justice Department shows people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at seven times the rate of people without disabilities. His series calls the issue an “epidemic.”

The concern surrounding these statistics sparked an idea with the Child Study Center’s team. What if they taught students how to defend themselves, especially during the transitional years when students are preparing to go out into the world to seek employment and possibly even live on their own? Dr. Mauk and her team contacted Security Services at Cook Children’s, which already provided self-defense courses to employees. Together they developed a curriculum specifically tailored to the needs the school’s students, aged 13 to 22.

“The most important thing we want these students to learn is how to protect themselves,” said Brennan McCullars, ‘Hard Target’ instructor and security services trainer at Cook Children’s. “These are people who are much more vulnerable to predators than the majority of the population. They are often trusting of others. They don’t always know what behaviors are inappropriate, so we have to work on that.”

One of the girls in McCullars’ class is 18-year-old Elizabeth. She’s a soft-spoken junior at the Child Study Center’s school where she also interns as a teacher’s aide. She’s small in stature and supportive of her classmates, cheering them on as they move through the course. When it’s her turn to approach the “ATM” – a punching pad leaned against the wall – Elizabeth transforms. There’s no reservation in her voice as she belts out ‘’NO!” and blocks incoming hits. She throws eight punches before sprinting away from her “attacker.”

When asked what she thought of the course, Elizabeth said she feels more confident now.

“In self-defense class, they taught us how to use our voice and how to use our hands and our feet (against an attacker),” said Elizabeth. “It has eased my concerns because I know I can protect myself when my brothers and my support system are not around.”

For Elizabeth’s father, Lonnie Ramon, these new skills are just one more tool in her toolbox. He and his wife believe Elizabeth will be able to live and work independently. He says he feels better about her future knowing she’s had to think through what should be unthinkable situations.

“It’s a crazy world nowadays. You see too many weird and crazy things on TV. People take advantage of others and I’m afraid of that,” said Ramon. “But that’s part of this self-defense course. It’s helping her think about how to get herself out of situations, God forbid they ever arise.”

Along with the four females, a group of eight male students are also going through ‘Hard Target.’ All of the students who complete the class will have a chance to take a refresher course next school year.

“We are excited to offer this one-of-a-kind curriculum,” said Tracie Mann, Ph.D., LBA, the headmaster of the school. “The ‘Hard Target’ program demonstrates our unwavering commitment to preparing our students for the future, both academically and in life.”

About the Jane Justin School at The Child Study Center

Jane Justin School, in partnership with families and the community, fosters the knowledge and life skills necessary for our students to achieve productive and meaningful lives while respecting and embracing the individuality of each child. To achieve this mission, Jane Justin School responds to the changing needs of our students and their families with compassion and educational excellence. Visit our website for more information.

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