SALT LAKE CITY — Avery Hunter is learning how to defend herself.
The Southern Utah University freshman took her first self-defense course offered by the school. She has already learned ways to get out of the grip of an attacker and increased confidence.
"Late at night when I go to my parking lot, it’s darker, and sometimes I think to myself, 'Oh, what if something does happen?'" Hunter said in an interview with FOX 13 News on Wednesday. "Because of this class, I know I can walk through my parking lot with confidence. If something does happen, I’m the one in control."
The Elizabeth Smart Foundation, the Malouf Foundation and SUU are partnering to offer the Smart Defense class to students starting this fall. The courses teach martial arts-based self-defense techniques but also mental health skills including meditation, boundaries, bystander awareness and healthy relationships.
"What is being taught is a lifelong skill," said Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped as a child and held captive for nine months in a case that generated international attention.
SUU President Mindy Benson said her university was honored to be the first school to offer the courses, which gives college credit to students who take it.
"It's important for me to make sure our students have the tools they need to succeed in life," Benson told FOX 13 News.
Smart said the origins for the self-defense courses came out of her own experience. Since her kidnapping, she has become an outspoken advocate for abuse and crime victims. She said she was on a plane in 2019 when she was sexually assaulted again.
"I said to my husband, 'Do I have a big sign across my forehead that says easy victim? I mean how can this even be possible?'" she recalled. "And that is when I knew that I wanted to do something more. Because if it was happening to me, then how many other people is it happening to?"
Political leaders in the audience for a demonstration of Smart Defense praised Smart for her efforts to prevent others from being victims of sexual assault. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who runs a lot of sexual assault prevention bills on Utah's Capitol Hill, asked about portions of the instruction that discussed predator grooming and bystander awareness.
Smart said it was just as important as other parts of the curriculum.
"I feel like if people weren’t paying attention in my story, and if they didn’t pick up the phone if they weren’t 100% sure and called the police and said, 'I think I just saw Elizabeth Smart,' if they hadn’t taken that additional step I might not be here," she said.
Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, asked Benson if she was talking to her counterparts in the Utah System of Higher Education about expanding it to other schools.
"For me? I’d like to see it everywhere," Rep. Johnson, who sponsors a number of education bills in the legislature, said of the courses.
He told FOX 13 News he would track the courses and look at whether it could be expanded to other colleges and universities in Utah or even K-12 schools.
"I think it’s got merit and when we have a university like SUU, we have a model," Rep. Johnson said.