By JACKIE ORCHARD
In a cleared out conference room on UAlbany’s uptown campus, three men in red shirts yell, “Defensive stance,” and four young women plant their feet, bring up their arms, and yell, “No!”
On queue, they strike, block, move, and kick.
All of the young women look different except for one unifying feature: Their fixed stares are steady and determined.
This is the Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) class, taught by the UAlbany Police Department (UPD). It is for all female students and staff on campus, and it is completely free.
UPD’s Cris Affinito has been teaching RAD for about four years now. He says it’s one of the ways he can directly help people, and potentially prevent someone from being a victim.
“You know, we drive around campus and we check the buildings and everything,” Affinito says. “But we don’t know if we’re actually deterring somebody from breaking into a room or stealing something. But doing this class, you’re actually teaching people skills to defend themselves.”
At the second class of three, the girls go around the circle introducing themselves and saying what type of toast they prefer.
The icebreaker works, and as Demi Lovato bumps in the background the awkwardness starts to slide away and people begin to joke around.
An argument breaks out over whether or not you can put cream cheese on an English muffin while the instructors guide everyone through stretches.
Then, the music dies out as they transition to more intense striking drills.
The class doesn’t just teach you how to throw a punch, it also emphasizes how to be more aware of your surroundings.
“To give them tools to defend themselves,” Affinito says. “And the confidence that they can defend themselves. Hopefully they go home and practice and realize this isn’t just a one-time, ‘now I’m good for the rest of my life’ they still have to practice and this whole thing encourages them to do that.”
In the class, the instructors show the girls a new scenario: a guy won’t leave you alone at a party.
“Your most powerful weapon is your voice,” Affinito reminds them. “But if that doesn’t work, here’s what you do.”
He shows them the move and the girls nod as he explains it.
“It’s like a dance move,” one of the girls says.
“It is like a dance move,” the instructor agrees, as he demonstrates the maneuver again.
The girls pair up and start practicing and the three instructors move around, offering pointers as they go.
“If you’re vocalizing, you’re breathing, you’re winning,” Affinito reminds the girls. “We want to keep on vocalizing.”
Nancy Creis, one of the women taking the class, is the training coordinator at UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness Homeland Security and Cyber Security (CEHC).
“I heard about it when I was a student,” Creis says. “But it never really worked with my class schedule.”
Creis’ favorite part of the course so far is not a defined lesson, per say.
“Less of a tactic and more of just empowerment,” Creis says. “I think it’s knowing that I can use my voice. We’re not used to yelling. So I think that was really empowering.”
Her first class, she had to get comfortable with yelling, “No,” over and over.
“It was really awkward at first,” Creis laughs. “But it’s about working through the awkward stage and getting into action mode, ‘What am I going to do if this is the situation I’m in?’”
In the class, the girls line up at the bag and practice hitting “into” the bag, so they can get a sense of how it feels. When they do this, too, they practice shouting “no!”
Watching, you get the sense that these women are finding their voice. Some of them seem otherwise soft-spoken, but with each elbow driven into the bag, one can almost see that reservation falling away.
Creis says this is due, in large part, to the environment created by the officers.
“The instructors are awesome,” she says. “It only took maybe ten or fifteen minutes of the instructors really letting us practice and teaching us, and then we all felt really comfortable.”
Creis works on the downtown campus and she says at night the parking lot is pretty vacant.
“I think that a lot of women have experienced moments where they wished they had been empowered,” Creis says.
Creis felt she was situationally aware before, but now she is more confident.
“Now I feel like, ‘Okay, if something were to happen, now I have a plan,’” Creis says. “Now, I feel empowered to deal with it. So the peace of mind is really valuable, I couldn’t put a price tag on that.”
With one class left in her course, Creis reflects on why she decided to take the class.
“My goal is already being met,” Creis says. “It’s to be more empowered and to be able to, hopefully, educate some of my friends as well.”
Creis’ class was small compared to the average class, just two grad students, a staff member, and a freshman. Despite their age differences, Creis says a camaraderie formed.
After each drill, the girls clap for each other and say things like, “that was intense, that was really good.”
The program first started around 2001, and UAlbany PD has been part of its growth since the beginning.
UPD officers say the class has helped women to avoid some dangerous situations already.
“We get stories all the time,” Affinito says. “There’s one good one, a girl was walking down the street in Albany, she’s on her phone, sees some guy coming down the street, she took a RAD course she said, ‘You know what, I’m going to switch my phone, put it on this ear so the guy can’t just grab it,’ and the guy actually tried to grab it. Ended up falling off his bike, and she just kept walking.”
The instructors put emphasis on moves that are “super painful” – they even teach the girls how to head-butt, explaining which part of the head will hurt the most. Or, if you’re in a choke-hold, how to get your airway free again and how to not panic in the meantime.
To protect the secrecy of these defensive moves, the class does not allow anyone who identifies as male.
“It’s strictly limited to females only,” Affinito says. “And we do adhere to RAD’s guidance as far as if somebody identifies as female we will allow them to take the female course.”
About seven UPD officers are RAD certified to teach the course, and schools from surrounding towns sometimes request they teach the class on their campus, too.
The officers are paid for their time teaching, but to be a RAD trainer, you have to prove yourself well-intentioned.
“Male law enforcement are good to go to take the class [to become an instructor],” Affinito says. “If you are male and not in law enforcement you need RAD’s permission to take the class [to become an instructor].”
Teachers, for example, could qualify to take the course to teach students.
“Someone like that would be fine,” Affinito says, “But if some random guy off the street wanted to be a RAD instructor, they’d say no.”
This is because RAD is teaching secret tips for women to use against men. If any man can take the class, then some bad ones could learn how to combat these defensive moves.
“It’s so that a male isn’t going to come and see these moves... If he puts someone in that situation he knows what moves a female is going to use to get out of it,” says UPD officer Jason Dube, a RAD trainer for over ten years.
The students are given a “Basic Physical Defense for Women Participant Manual.”
“We tell them, ‘If you’re going to throw it away, please shred it,’” says Dube. “Don’t go home and practice on your boyfriend because these rules are sacred. Kind of like that secret weapon that we’re teaching.”
So much so that the officers say a male reporter from the ASP would not have been allowed to sit in on the class.
The class is designed for women who want to learn how to prevent an assault, but some students come because they have been assaulted in the past.
The trainers are ready for that, and sometimes students tell the instructors about their experience.
“What happens on the last night, the simulation, that’s more of a trigger than the first two nights. Kathy [another UPD trainer] is usually out there with them and sometimes when they come out she can read, ‘Okay, this girl isn’t reacting the same.’”
When this happens, an instructor lets the girl know they can talk.
“We do a presentation on the first day,” Affinito says. “We remind people of the advocacy center.”
Despite the hands-on nature of this course, instructors are not allowed to touch the students.
There are certain training scenarios in which a partner would be beneficial, so they suggest you come with a friend.
“If you feel comfortable you can, but you’re not obligated to do those demonstrations for ground defense,” says Dube.
This is advice the students and trainers agree on:
“Whenever you’re with a friend you’re just a little more comfortable in the class,” Affinito says.
“Choose one of your closest friends and come to the class,” says Creis. “It’s always a little nerve-wracking if you’re going to something alone so it’s a little easier with a friend. And you can leave and laugh about it and talk about it and you’ll both be more empowered.”
The RAD class is taught on campus in three parts. Wednesday night, the women will complete part three: fighting off a real person using the skills they’ve learned.
To see how they did, look out for Part Three of this story next week.
UPD also puts classes together for organizations, and they are willing to work around a group’s schedule.
To find more information about RAD, or to request a class, you can reach out to UAlbany PD at: https://police.albany.edu/RADInst.asp