by Alejandra Martinez, Faith Ann Ruszkowski, Jackie Sanchez and Sarah Talaat
When University of Texas at Austin student Haruka Weiser’s body was discovered in Waller Creek on campus April 5, the UT Austin community grieved but was also forced to address heightened concerns over student safety.
Weiser, an 18-year-old dance major, was walking back to her dorm from an evening rehearsal when she was attacked and murdered, according to police statements. After news of the murder broke, students, parents and faculty immediately called campus security into question. UT Austin President Gregory Fenves responded to their concerns in an April 6 email stating that police patrols on campus would increase and the university would provide free shuttles for Fine Arts students with evening rehearsals.
In the email, Fenves urged students “to always remain focused on your surroundings while walking; to never walk alone after dark; and to stay on clearly-marked and well-lit sidewalks.” While the UT Police Department encouraged students to participate in SURE Walk, a volunteer organization that will send two students to guide another student to any destination on or near campus.
For some students, however, the incident has prompted them to think about self-defense.
Lauren Gusman, a vocal performance junior, said she frequently walks near the spot where Weiser was murdered.
“That night, when I walked by there, I had no idea what was going to happen, “ Gusman said. “I walked right by where it happened, within five or 10 minutes of it happening.”
Gusman said she’s now looking into self-defense classes offered at UT, even though she owns a Taser and is trained in gun use.
“I’ve never taken a self-defense class before, and I feel that this will be a really great opportunity, especially with what has happened on campus … I figure that having some sort of self-defense skills is something that all women should be able to do,” Gusman said. “I just want to be able to protect myself.”
Options for self-defense classes on campus are rather limited though. Through the university, students can take Hapkido, a Korean self-defense martial art, for P.E. credit each semester. UTPD also offers a free 12-hour, three-session Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) course for women. The next available course is at the beginning of May.
In addition to official classes, there are extracurricular groups that offer instruction on self-defense. UT Aikido, a student group on campus, teaches situational awareness through martial arts. The group, which welcomes everyone, meets every Tuesday and Thursday in Belmont Hall.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art that actually combines elements of several other martial arts including judo. Its principle aim is to thwart attackers by shifting their momentum.
“Just because someone attacks us, we are not interested in hurting them,” Dan Hamilton, an Aikido sensei with UT Aikido, said. “We are interested in protecting ourselves.”
Huong Vu, a biophysics graduate student, started training with UT Aikido three months ago.
“I study Aikido because I like martial arts and especially I feel very scared when I walk on the street, so I think that might help me with my confidence when I walk on the street,” Huong Vu said.
For Vu, Aikido was more appealing than other popular forms of martial arts because of her gender.
“Aikido is more gentle than some other martial arts that require a lot of strength. Aikido is more soft, so it is more suitable for a woman,” Vu said. “I heard that it’s more famous for defense, instead of attacking, and that’s what I was looking for.”
Off campus, members of the Austin community have also come forward to offer their expertise in self-defense techniques to the public.
Niki Jones, founder of Sure Shots, a non-UT-affiliated shooting and social club for women, decided to offer two free self-defense workshops in the wake of Weiser’s death.
“Situational awareness and one’s personal defense and planning is something that we always rotate through in our topics … I just wanted a nice, two-hour discussion where it was very interactive and people could really start thinking about these things,” Jones said. “It was such a tragedy to see that life be taken. And it really just kind of felt personal in that she is no different than a lot of our [young female members].”
Jones’ workshop mainly focused on ways to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
“Walking with your head up and not looking down at your phone is huge. And it was applicable to this situation, unfortunately. A confident walk [is important]. Any social media you have to do is not important, you know–even if that means you take those apps off your phone–[self-awareness is] the No. 1 thing,” Jones said.
While some people might worry that they are offending another person if they choose to cross the street to keep a safe distance between them, for instance, Jones said that nothing is more important than feeling safe.
“Trust your gut–that’s the No. 2 thing.That feeling or that fear that you can’t pinpoint, it’s there for a reason, so listen to it and do what you gotta do. If you gotta yell, if you gotta act crazy, don’t be embarrassed.”
Above all, Jones wants people to remember three key things when they are in a potentially dangerous situation: “You have to have a plan, and you have to commit to it, and you have to not be afraid of offending people.”
Sure Shots will offer a second free self-defense workshop this Wednesday at Red’s Indoor Range (South) from 7 to 9 p.m.