Young voices yell “No . . . no . . . stop . . . stop” as students, one after another, pummel instructor Pamela Carroll with their fists.
Protected by a padded shield, she urges the youngsters to keep hitting her. “Harder, harder,” Carroll said. “Control your arms. Now run fast to a safe zone.”
Later, the group watches intently as Carroll demonstrates how to respond if grabbed from behind. “Heel kicks hard and fast,” she said. “Keep yelling and kicking.”
This isn’t a boxing, judo or karate class. It’s a class being taught at a private exercise facility in north Atlanta during which a group of 5- to 7-year-olds are learning to fight back against anyone who might physically abuse them. They’re being taught to “resist aggression defensively.”
Graduates are known as “radKIDS.”
These kids are instructed in a simple set of beliefs: “No one has the right to hurt me. I am special; I don’t get to hurt anyone else, but I can stop them from hurting me; if anyone tries to hurt me or make me feel bad inside, it is not my fault. I can tell.”
Carroll, an elementary physical education teacher at Dresden Elementary School near Brookhaven, is one of 3,500 community-based trained instructors across 44 states and Canada — first responders, teachers, counselors and other concerned citizens.
“Every child should have this opportunity to stand up for themselves, to be empowered,” Carroll said.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated 800,000 children younger than 18 are reported missing each year. That’s more than 200 each day. Many are never found.
Steve Daly, founder and executive director of radKIDS, knows those statistics all too well. He’s a former police officer and police chief of a small town. During his 22-year career in law enforcement in Massachusetts, he saw too many children who were victims of violence. “I was tired of arriving after the crime occurred. I want to put an end to violence and victimization of children.”
He went back to college for a degree in education. In 1998, Daly founded the personal empowerment and safety program radKIDS for children aged 5 to 12 in South Dennis, Mass. “We have a unique approach,” he said. “We teach physical skills and train their brains to instinctively respond to danger, not to freeze in fear. They hear what to do, and then they practice over and over again.”
Keep Georgia Safe of Duluth sponsors the radKIDS programs in the state. “It’s my goal to implement programs in all Georgia schools to reach and empower every child with the necessary skills and tools to help keep them safe in today’s world,” said Keep Georgia Safe founder Gary Martin Hayes, who brought the program to Georgia four years ago and now offers about 65 classes a year.
Since the program started in Georgia, classes have been offered across the state, including locations such as Northside Presbyterian Church, the Cathedral of St. Philip and the Buckhead Theater. In Sandy Springs and Atlanta, several police officers are trained to teach the program, Keep Georgia Safe executive director Mary Ellen Fulkes said.
What Daly and Hayes call “brain training,” the kids call “lots of fun.” The multi-sensory activity training keeps them moving constantly, role playing, laughing — just kids having fun.
On the fifth and final day of class, there is a simulated abduction with a police officer as “the bad guy.”
Afterwards, everyone receives a certificate of completion with his or her photo and right thumb print and the tur turquoise blue wristband of an official radKID.