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The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

A class that teaches women how to protect themselves is a big hit

 A class participant practices driving her knee into a kicking pad
Sarah Owens
Community News Collaborative
A class participant practices driving her knee into a kicking pad held by Sgt. Shannon Fortuno.

North Port Police plan to repeat training sessions after initial meeting attracts lots of attention.

Beth Kersten, a college science professor, recently walked into the North Port Public Safety Building with her daughter Melanie, hoping to learn something new on a rainy evening that might keep her and her daughter safe in the face of trouble.

Ninety minutes later, after some classroom instruction and a few turns delivering body blows to a punching bag, they walked away knowing about a dozen new self-defense moves.

Kersten and her daughter were two of 14 women taking part in a women’s safety class held by the city’s police department. Even without the punching bags, the event could safely have been called a hit, with police planning more such events to satisfy demand.

No, the class was not a response to crime trends in the rapidly growing south Sarasota County community, police said. It’s just an example of community outreach that found its mark for as many reasons as there were class participants that evening.

Officer demonstrates how to escape a hair hold
Sarah Owens
Community News Collaborative
Officer James Fortuno demonstrates how to escape a hair hold with assistance from his wife, Sgt. Shannon Fortuno.

“My daughter is a 10th grader, and at some point, she's gonna start going to parties and she’s gonna go off to college, and I want her to know how to defend herself,” Kersten said.

Kersten also noted that while her school’s security is strong, her own safety on campus is a priority because police or security guards can’t be everywhere. A previous experience with a stalker also played into her decision to enhance her self-defense skills.

Officer Jarod Peer said the class is the first of its kind being offered by the NPPD since he joined the force four years ago, although he noted the department has offered similar classes before. The basic message Peer delivered: keep your eyes open in many different ways.

Peer opened the class with a presentation before participants moved to a training room where Officer James Fortuno, a nearly 17-year veteran with the force, taught defensive moves. Both Peer and Fortuno are certified Defense Tactic Instructors through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but this is the first time they have taught this class to civilians.

The presentation covered topics of situational awareness, internet safety, scammers, and human trafficking as well as how to increase safety at home, in parking lots, at parties and more.

“Always maintain your situational awareness,’’ he said. “Put your phone away when you’re out in public and pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you see something, say something.”

“And if something feels off about a situation, follow your gut feeling, listen to it. If you’re wrong, no big deal, but if you’re right, you may have saved yourself from becoming a victim.”

After the presentation, the women filed into a training room equipped with a padded floor and walls.

“... if something feels off about a situation, follow your gut feeling, listen to it. If you’re wrong, no big deal, but if you’re right, you may have saved yourself from becoming a victim.”
Officer Jarod Peer

Fortuno then demonstrated several self-defense tactics with the help of his wife, Sgt. Shannon Fortuno and Officer Peer before going around the room to help each student practice.

The room was filled with laughter and smiles as the women took their turns, though the overarching theme was serious enough.

Peer and Fortuno emphasized the importance of practicing, noting that confidence is often the difference. Peer also encouraged those who carry a concealed firearm to regularly practice drawing and firing their weapon. Florida recently changed its firearms laws to allow for unlicensed concealed carry.

According to Peer, the goal of the class is to provide training on situational awareness and to teach students simple concepts that they can follow to help prevent them from becoming victimized.

After the initial date rapidly filled to capacity, with dozens more expressing interest, organizers said they planned to make the classes a regular occurrence.

For information, visit the North Port Police websiteor follow the NPPD on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Sarah Owens is a reporter for the Sarasota-based Community News Collaborative. Reach her at slowens@cncfl.org.

Two woman practice martial arts moves
Sarah Owens
Community News Collaborative
Beth Kersten and her daughter Melanie practice moves to escape an attacker who grabs them from behind.