About 100 high school senior girls laughed and joked in the Columbus East wrestling room as they practiced punching, kicking and elbowing techniques with local police officers recently.

Although the atmosphere was open, friendly and fun, the purpose of the gathering was serious: to teach young women who are about to enter college or the workforce how to protect themselves in a dangerous situation.

Female seniors from all Bartholomew County high schools can participate in the Situational Awareness for Everyday (SAFE) training class.

The free day of training includes a lecture to teach the girls to recognize dangerous warning signs, and a physical defense session during which students learn basic self-protection moves and practice them with Columbus Police Department Officers Julie Quesenbery, Eric Stevens and about 10 other officers.

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Quesenbery is the school resource officer at Columbus East High School, while Stevens has the same responsibility at Columbus North High School.

They started the program after a father of a senior student approached them, worried that he had not finished teaching his daughter the means necessary to face the world.

The training has now been in the Bartholomew County schools for three years. Sessions were conducted before spring break, on Feb. 24 at Columbus North and March 9 at Columbus East.

“(It’s) a young woman’s guide to keeping herself safe in the real world,” Quesenbery said.

The training is important to have in schools because, while officers would love for everyone to take some form of self defense course, most people don’t, Stevens said.

Most people get busy with work, school or other activities and just don’t think about it, Stevens said, but the public needs to “be aware that it is a dangerous world out there and we can make it safer if we just plan ahead.”

This training is specifically for high school seniors, as the session discusses mature topics. Students receive four hours of conference style instruction in the morning. Discussion topics include sex 101, survival signals based off the book “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker, red flags or warning signs to look out for in a relationship and ways to party safer, Quesenbery said.

This portion of the day delves into one lesson in particular, according to Stevens: being aware of your surroundings.

“Just look around and trust your feelings, trust your instincts. We have instincts for a reason and they are there to protect us,” Stevens said.

While the sessions involve serious conversations, instructors keep students engaged by making the lessons interesting and funny. They tell jokes and line their lessons with humor because “when they are laughing they are learning,” Quesenbery said.

Tiara Taylor, a student at Columbus Signature Academy _ New Tech High School, said she felt better prepared for life after high school, especially after all of the information provided during the discussion.

“I am more educated on ways to keep myself safe in situations that are not under my control,” Taylor said. “This has also taught me that it is better to be safe than sorry and always trust your instincts.”

After a lunch break, students get to learn and practice safety moves for the next two hours — the favorite part of the day for many of the participants, including Seena Greiwe, an East student.

“The actual attacking our instructors part (was my favorite),” Greiwe said. “My favorite move would probably be the elbow one, just because I feel like it’s the hardest one, as in it would hurt the other person more. I think it’s the most helpful to me.”

Cortney VanLiew, an East student, preferred moves where she could use her knee, especially a knee to the groin.

Students encourage girls to take some form of self defense training, Griewe said.

“Because no matter who you are or where you are, something can happen, and it is better to be prepared for any situation,” Greiwe added.

Only two hours of physical training is provided as officers want students to focus on avoiding bad situations first and foremost.

“We want to focus more on them using their brains to get out of it however they can, but we want to give them the tools where, if they do get in a bad situation, to empower them to have the confidence to know that they can get out of it,” Quesenbery said.

That confidence was evident at the March 9 session. Smiles broke out on faces when an instructor said “good job,” or a student forced an instructor back with the force of their kick or punch — all done safely through a punching bag.

“Every time, hands down, we see these girls walk out with so much more confidence than when they walk in. It is amazing to watch that transformation,” Quesenbery said. “They can kick some butt, if necessary, and I love it.”

For more information

Next Sessions

All of the Bartholomew County SAFE training sessions have been held for this school year, according to Columbus Police Department Officer Julie Quesenbery, the resource officer at Columbus East High School. New dates will be announced in the fall, at the beginning of the next school year.

For more information, contact Quesenbery by calling 812-376-4346, or sending an email to jquesenbery@columbus.in.gov.

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Kaitlyn Evener is an editorial assistant for The Republic. She can be reached at kevener@therepublic.com or 812-379-5633.