Pelting rain blurred Celenea Mitchell's windshield as she drove through Battle Ground, Wash. A few weeks had passed since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, and Mitchell, a mother of two and a PTA volunteer, was determined to help get Battle Ground teachers trained in self-defense.
Noticing a billboard for the Mountain View Martial Arts school, she pulled into a parking lot and dialed the number. David Mason, the center's head instructor, answered. While on the phone, Mitchell, 38, glimpsed a man nearby, seemingly talking in tune to the voice on the phone.
The man, it turned out, was Mason. "It was completely coincidental." Mitchell laughed.
Mason, a seventh-degree, black belt instructor, agreed to train Battle Ground school professionals in self-defense, free of charge.
As school professionals nationwide re-evaluate plans for keeping schoolchildren safe in light of recent school shootings, more teachers, administrators and some parents are turning to self-defense training, self-defense instructors and educators nationwide say. Some people say it is the wrong approach to improving school safety.
Teachers are the first line of defense for schoolchildren, Mason said. Using tae kwon do techniques, Mason trains school professionals in a two-hour lesson offered the third Saturday of each month. "We need to make sure that our teachers feel safe and face the realities," he said.
The classes have drawn 10 to 15 participants. Mason says he hope to bring the training from the center and into the classroom.
Marc Egan, the associate director of government relations for the National Education Association, said self-defense training is too narrow of a focus. "We need to look at the bigger picture."
Egan said he is not aware of a significant national move toward self-defense training, noting instead a push for preventive measures such as increased access to mental health services.
Decatur, Ala., school professionals are among those who have sought out self-defense training. Premier Martial Arts of Decatur's owners and instructors, Michelle and Jerry Chenault, combine Krav Maga techniques, a defense developed and used by the Israeli army, to train school staff in a free, hour-long class.
"Teachers should be more prepared than just hiding under the desk," Jerry Chenault said. "Self-defense isn't the answer, but it is an answer."
In Springfield, Mass., the school district began requiring self-defense training for district administrators in February, providing the option for teachers and staff to join. The training, led by the Springfield police department, taught attendees how to break away from being choked or grabbed by the wrist, said Michelle Heim, the assistant principal of Springfield's High School of Commerce.
"This is a seed for (school staff) to build upon," she said. "You have to try to make habits in order for them to be instinctive."
The first session drew 30 participants. Heim anticipates a turnout of roughly 80 to 90 for the next class.
Christine Kepler, an elementary school teacher at Elgin West Elementary School in La Rue, Ohio, questions how districts can mandate the training. "I'm not sure you can require people to be trained in something that might put their lives at risk," she said.
Kepler registered for a free self-defense class March 30, specifically offered for educators but open to the public, at the Meeker Sportsman's Club in Marion, Ohio. "I think it will give me more options if I ever found myself in a dangerous situation," she said.
South Dakota passed a bill this month permitting teachers who undergo the same training as law enforcement to carry weapons on school campuses. The law will go into effect July 1 and is largely geared toward the state's rural schools that are often at a distance from law enforcement centers, said Tony Venhuizen, spokesperson for the governor's office. "Self-defense training also makes sense," but each school district should decide for themselves, he said.
"We just hope school systems recognize the need for such training so that teachers and students are better protected," defense instructor Jerry Chenault said. "It's really easy to ignore it and say it will never happen here."