Why some students are choosing self-defense to ensure their safety on campus


DJ Jacobi

Student protestors gather in a circle on the Quad outside of Parks Library. A few students step forward or yell out their personal stories and experiences.

Nicole Mattson

Content Warning: Sexual assault

After several sexual assaults have been reported on campus as well as a national uproar for justice for women who have been victims of FIJI fraternity members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Iowa, students are looking to protect themselves and one another.

Iowa State graduate student Maria Hoffdahl shared her thoughts on campus safety.

“I always feel safe on campus,” Hoffdahl said. “I typically feel safe in Ames, however I have encountered a few men that have made me feel uncomfortable and/or worried about my safety. I typically carry pepper spray and a cat self defense keychain with me. If I am walking alone around Ames, especially at night, I bring my taser with me. The reason I carry these with me is because I am a 21-year-old female that is not very strong or fast, and I have encountered multiple situations where I have felt scared for my safety.”

Haley Blizzard, a senior at Iowa State, majoring in apparel merchandising and design, shared her concerns and how she protects herself.

“I have two different tasers: one is smaller so I carry that one with me more often because of its size, whereas my larger one I normally keep at home next to my bed,” Blizzard said. “I carry a taser with me because I have heard too many stories about sexual assault and kidnapping with young women in college so it makes me feel a little more safe to have protection with me.”

Blizzard, like many women, feels most unsafe when walking at night.

“I think I get most concerned about walking home late at night after going out with friends or if I am on campus after dark and have to walk home,” Blizzard said.

Amy Ratekin, Co-Owner and Executive Director of C.O.B.R.A. Self-Defense Iowa, has been teaching and practicing self-defense for 40 years. Her classes cover topics and situations ranging from anti-car abduction techniques to how to use everyday items for self-defense.

“We recommend in your dorm room or apartment to have cleaning spray next to the door. It’s a great thing to spray in a perpetrator’s eyes,” Ratekin said. “We like everyday items at C.O.B.R.A. more than we like fancy things that you buy.”

Ratekin also recommends that students walk in pairs, change their routine once in a while, walk in well-lit areas, avoid texting and using their cellphones while walking, always keep track of their food and drinks when at parties and lock and relocate when getting in cars.

Ratekin highly encourages carrying a personal alarm that is over 140 decibels. 140 decibels can be heard from a block away, and the alarms draw a lot of attention. As for self-defense weapons, she recommends the Sabre pepper gel, which makes it less likely to spray oneself while trying to spray an attacker.

Police officers use Sabre products, and they have the maximum strength. Most other sprays have a shorter shelf life and are often expired prior to purchase.

ISUPD Engagement and Inclusion Officer and Detective Natasha Greene encourages students to look after one another.

“I really, really love the groups or communities that abide by the philosophy of, ‘If we start the night together, we end the night together,’ and not just from a safety standpoint, but also from a making memories together [standpoint], making decent choices together and making sure that each one of our friends is safe at the end of the night,” Greene said.

Greene also recommends that students utilize ISUPD’s safety resources such as ISU Guardian, Safe Ride ISU, self-defense courses and more. ISU Guardian is a tool with resources for students, and it can be used to call ISUPD at the click of a button and travel more safely, which is done with safety timers.

“The coolest part about [ISU Guardian] is the safety timers,” Green said. “You can select whomever you want out of your contacts and set them as guardians for that safety timer. And then what’s going to happen is they are going to get a notification that you have selected them as a guardian, and then it’ll provide access to them to see where you’re at along your journey–as long as you’ve given that permission on the app.”

Once the chosen timer has ended, if the user has not checked in with the app to select that they have arrived, it will prompt them to do so and prompt their guardian to check in with them.

To access the free service, students can download the app and input their ISU email address. This also personalizes the app and resources to Iowa State.

Safe Ride ISU is a free transportation service that can take students from any campus location to any other campus location (including the sorority and fraternity communities). The service is offered every day, and the hours differ based on when it is dark throughout the year. The current hours are 6:00 pm-5:30 am. Students can call 515-294-4444 or use the SafeRide ISU app to get a ride.

“I really appreciate that it improves access to our campus spaces and it doesn’t create what I know as the societal geographies of fear,” Greene said. “So, the concept that only certain people or certain identities get to kind of roam about or exist on campus past a certain time at night is not okay, and it’s an equity issue and so anything that improves access is important.”

Greene hopes that students reach out to available resources whenever needed. For self-defense courses and more resources and presentations, contact [email protected].

“These are things that we teach you so that you can hopefully not have to experience a violent encounter, but [self defense courses are] just one of many tools in our community to help address violence,” Greene said. “And really what is more important is us looking at a broader scope of ways that we, as a community, can work together to prevent violence of all sorts of things happening on campus. So, then you would look [at more systemic things] like Green Dot or other violence prevention strategies.”

Greene would also like to remind people that ISUPD gets a lot of requests, which they are very excited about, but they also need time to schedule the presentations out in order to give a top-quality experience to each group.

“I think the university has to do more in regards to sexual assault on campus,” Hoffdahl said. “There have been four this year that I am aware of. Non-mandatory courses on Canvas are not cutting it. I think the university needs to be stricter on punishments and make the rest of the students aware of the consequences that come with those types of actions.”

Sexual assault and harassment victims can file reports with Iowa State’s Title IX Coordinator at 515-294-7612. For resources and support, visit https://www.nsvrc.org/survivors.