Fear. It’s a feeling with which Katherine Mathis is very familiar.
With the help of Gainesville Police Department’s Rape Aggression Defense, or RAD, classes, she no longer feels afraid.
“I was a victim of some tragic violence when I was 13 years old,” she said. “For many, many years, I walked around in fear. I was afraid of any and every man. I was very intimidated by people, mostly men, and I couldn’t grow the way I needed to.”
Mathis, 48, knew she needed to take RAD classes for a long time. Since participating in them earlier this year, she said she has felt more confident.
RAD classes are available for all demographics, but GPD’s first sessions of the year were specifically for women. The class was designed to give women strategies for risk awareness, prevention, reduction and physical self defense, police Sgt. Lynn Valdes said.
Around 20 women gathered earlier this month in the Hall of Heroes at the department’s headquarters to learn just that. There were writers, accountants, college students, mothers and daughters who came to learn how to protect themselves.
The free 12-hour class was split into three sessions. The first session on Feb. 7 was the lecture portion. The next day, students learned the skills they would need to defend themselves. The class ended on Feb. 9, after students practiced their skills on male volunteers from GPD in controlled simulations.
Valdes, who is also the RAD program coordinator, sees a great need for the class.
“Crime happens every day. Violence is happening more and more in the city of Gainesville,” she said.
According to the FBI, there were 128 reported rape cases in Gainesville in 2020. There were also 1,042 violent crimes reported in the city for that same year. The number has only grown since.
While police Sgt. Farrah Lormil recognizes that women are not the only victims of violent crime, the statistics for women are much higher than she would like them to be, she said.
Lormil is particularly concerned about the growing student population.
“Gainesville is a college town. We have lots of students,” she said. “With that population that is growing every year, I would be remiss if I didn’t try to teach them to be prepared for what could happen.”
Alison Morris, an accountant for the City of Gainesville and participant in the first round of RAD classes, believes that this class should even be taught in high schools.
“I think it’s very important for every woman to be able to protect herself,” Morris said. “Even if it never happens, you know? It’s better to know and not to use it, than not to know, and whoops.”
Writer Sarah Bewley thinks the same. She travels for conferences and often finds herself in places she is not familiar with. She was also stalked when she was younger.
“Throughout life I’ve had some experiences that made me aware of the fact that it’s really easy to end up in a situation where you don’t have control,” Bewley said. “And because of that, you need to know how to take care of yourself.”
Douglas Williams, a Gainesville police officer, sees the importance of the class firsthand.
Towering over six feet tall, Williams is an instructor for the RAD program and one of the volunteers for the simulation session. Women get to practice their skills on him and get real experience defending themselves against a large aggressor.
He is glad to help women learn how to use their skills, he said, and wants to help women feel confident and safe.
“I love to teach people how to defend themselves for one.” Williams said. “But two, just to see women be empowered really moved me.”
He also has a wife and three daughters, and some have already taken the class. Others will take it once they are older.
He wants others to recommend the class to the women in their lives.
“We’ve never had anyone come out and say it was a waste of time,” Williams said.
The hopes are participants will never have to use the skills they learn, Lormil said. However, just knowing women can defend themselves can bring them courage going forward.
“We do our best to make sure that everyone leaves a little bit better than when they came in,” Lormil said.
The department has not yet scheduled the next class, but people who are interested can email Valdes at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about upcoming sessions.