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Elizabeth Smart wants more college students to get self-defense training

The Smart Defense program has been piloted at some universities but Smart is seeking $186,000 to expand it to all public universities in Utah

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Elizabeth Smart asks the Utah Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee to fund the Smart Defense sexual assault prevention and self-defense course at all state universities in the Senate building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Kidnapping and sexual assault survivor Elizabeth Smart is seeking funding so Smart Defense, the sexual violence prevention and self-defense program she developed, can be offered at all of Utah’s state-supported colleges and universities.

When older teens go to college for the first time, they receive a lot of advice from friends and family, she said.

“When I went to school, it was such an exciting time. There was a lot of attention focused on being safe, making sure you lock your door, making sure you keep track of your belongings. But what’s really frightening and scary is, actually, that the chances of you being raped on campus are two times higher than you actually being robbed,” said Smart, addressing the Utah Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.

Smart, through Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, is requesting $186,000 in ongoing state funding to scale up the program from a pilot to a statewide initiative. The program has been piloted at Southern Utah University and Snow College.

The funding would allow the Smart Defense program to be offered at every public university and college in Utah as an optional elective course. Two courses for men and two for women would be offered at each institution. Students would receive a seven-week intensive course totaling 16 instructional hours, according to documents accompanying the request.

According to Smart Defense survey results, participants reported an ability to recognize red flags of an unhealthy relationship. They also feel equipped to apply the training, experienced healthy coping skills and decreased trauma symptoms.

Smart said she has spent 20 years working in advocacy and has met hundreds of victims and survivors.

“Too often I have heard the words ‘I didn’t know it was rape,’ or they describe the exact situation to me, which I can tell you it is rape, that is sexual assault. But they didn’t know it was because it came from a boyfriend. It came from someone that they knew. Sadly, shockingly, most abuse and rape does come from someone that you know or was someone that you love or someone that you think you trust,” she said.

Smart Defense is “about respecting yourself. It’s about having confidence in yourself. It’s about knowing that you can say ‘No’ and expect that ‘No’ to be respected. Unfortunately, I don’t think ‘No’ is a word that’s used enough,” she said.

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Miyo Strong, Smart Defense program manager, asks the Utah Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee to fund the Smart Defense sexual assault prevention and self-defense course at all state universities in the Senate building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Smart said the program is “about empowering yourself, and understanding you have the right to protect yourself. You have the right to stand your ground. You have the right to feel like you have the ability to take up space and no one else has the right to hurt you,” said Smart.

Smart was 14 years old when she was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City on June 5, 2002. She was found alive on March 12, 2003, in Sandy with her captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. Her abduction, recovery and the prosecutions of Mitchell and Barzee were extensively reported worldwide.

Smart told committee members that she was born and raised in Utah and very proud to be a Utahn.

“But one of the things that I find most disturbing and most sad is that the national average is, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted. But in Utah, it’s 1 in 3. That breaks down to just about one per minute and every nine minutes, that person is a child,” she said.

The subcommittee took no action but will consider the request among others before delivering its budget recommendation to the Executive Appropriations Committee for its consideration.