Teen girls, women learn to defend, empower themselves at Bellingham studio



Hanna Marsh, 12, practices hitting martial arts instructor Shayne Simpson as hard as she can at a self-defense class for teen girls and women Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at the Shayne Simpson's Martial Arts & Fitness in Bellingham.


BELLINGHAM - A man breaks into a stranger's home and, unprovoked, brutally beats a woman in her living room in front of her 3-year-old child. The incident, caught on film by a nanny camera, unfolds without any visible struggle from the victim, who later told police she was too frightened to fight back for fear the man would turn his attention to her child. She gave the attacker no reason to hit her, yet he continued the assault.

"This is the mentality we're dealing with," Penny Simpson, a Kenpo Karate teacher, told a group of teen girls and women gathered to learn some keys to self-defense at Shayne Simpson's Martial Arts and Fitness on Saturday morning, Feb. 15.

The faces of the young ladies and mothers, painted with smiles moments earlier, quickly turned serious as the group watched the disturbing footage.

"If you're a good person, it's hard to imagine someone doing that for a little bit of money or jewelry," Simpson continued. "But you have to be aware it's out there."

Simpson, a black belt in the self-defense art of Kenpo, has taught women's self-defense classes for 15 years.

While it's important to recognize that dangerous people are out there, Simpson said, the point is to be aware - not afraid.

Participants practiced thinking like a predator, watching as groups of their peers walked across the studio mats and deciding which of them looked like the easiest targets. One girl was picked for keeping her hands in her pockets, another because her hair covered her face.

After looking at themselves as an attacker might, the group practiced walking taller, keeping their heads up and making eye contact with those they passed. In pairs, they pretended to bash one another in the nose with their fists, practiced getting out of bear hugs and pressed their chins to their chests to prevent their partners from pretending to strangle them.

The women and girls practiced hitting punching bags with padded sticks, weapons that could easily be substituted by an umbrella, flashlight or walking stick in real life. Many of the younger girls started out beating the bags shyly, but by their third or fourth go, gave a series of solid whacks to the pretend offenders.

At that point, Penny's husband, Shayne Simpson, stepped into the class for a moment.

"We are taught not to hit someone," Simpson said. "It takes courage to hit someone."

Many participants agreed that they might be scared or feel bad about hurting someone, even an attacker. So Simpson invited each of the 20 or so participants to take turns hitting him as hard as they could with a padded stick to get a feeling for what it is like to strike a real person.

Sehome High School senior Kendra Thomas, 18, who had timidly thumped her stick against the punching bags a moment before, suddenly was able to throw her strength into hitting the pretend assailant in front of her.

"Actually hitting him, you realize one or two hits will decide what's going to happen," Thomas said after the class. "I always thought of them as having feelings too, but you have to realize they're attacking you."

Saturday's class was organized by Jamie Shannon, a teen life coach who teaches youth effective ways to improve themselves and work through issues they may have. Shannon arranged the course after three teenage girls she knows were raped in a three month period.

The lion's share of Saturday's course was spent discussing how abusers and attackers use physical advantages and emotional manipulation to inflict harm. In addition to practicing physical techniques for disabling predators, the group heard a presentation on domestic minor sex trafficking from Alysa Kelsey and Don Glunt, a Lynden police officer.

Kelsey and Glunt work with "Not for Sale," a nonprofit that battles human trafficking around the world. The two shared stories of trafficking in Whatcom County and explained the "grooming" process that predators put young girls through before using them for financial gain.

Predators look for vulnerable young girls and boys, often by using social media to see where they live, what they look like, and reading their status updates to look for signs that a child or teen is unhappy, Kelsey told the group. Because these predators often start out by fulfilling a need for their victims, whether it's for affection, attention, or maybe a place to stay, one easy, preventive step for teens is to ensure their Facebook and other social profiles are locked down from public view, Kelsey said.

Thomas, whose mom encouraged her to sign up for the course before she goes to college in the fall, said she learned a lot about empowering herself.

"Don't play the victim - that's when you become the victim," Thomas said. "Fight back with all you have."

Information on current and future classes at the martial arts studio can be found at martialarts4bellingham.com.


Be aware: If you are walking or running alone, listening to headphones or texting on a cell phone can cloud your senses, Simpson told the group. Never be oblivious to your surroundings, she said.

Trust your gut: "If you're feeling uneasy, trust your instincts," Simpson said. "Sometimes it's just a bad feeling with no logical explanation, but fear is a good warning system. It's like your body's smoke detector."

Avoid the situation: The best bet for defense, after recognizing a potential threat, is attempting to get out of a situation before it escalates, whether that means walking or running away, calling for help, or avoiding a certain area or event that might put you in danger, Simpson said.

Practice: If it is necessary to use force to get out of a situation, it will be easier for your brain to remember a self-defense technique in an adrenaline-filled moment if you've practiced it before you need to use it, Simpson said.

SOURCE: Kenpo instructor Penny Simpson

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