Self-defence part of a youngster's education

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am

New York

Claudia Aguilar does not know how to spell her name yet. But she is mastering a skill that might save her life. 'I learn karate,' boasted the five-year-old with curly hair and flashing brown eyes. 'I can do this to bad guys.'

By straightening her palm in front of her chest and kicking out one leg, Aguilar made her nanny and other people in the playground laugh and applaud.

Sebastian Santiago, nine, is more realistic. He may have had some training in kung fu at school, yet Sebastian suggested kids not try to fight an attacker alone. 'Because they might do something bad to you,' he said. 'The best thing to do is to yell for any adult. Anybody around you, just call help, help.'

Such smarts are reflective of the increasing education of children in New York about the dangers that lurk in the city. Whether the lessons are from teachers, parents, the media or friends, they are starting to have an impact, it seems.

Take two heroic children who recently made the city proud. The mother of Xochil Garcia, 11, from Brooklyn, told her the No1 rule - don't go with strangers for anything.

And then the girl practised escaping in her own mind. One night last month, it proved worthwhile.

Xochil was followed by a youth as she came home one evening. He tried to drag her to the stairs leading to the roof of her own building. But Xochil, although scared, knew what she should do. She waited for an opportunity to break free and ran to the hallway and pressed the bells of her own home and some of her neighbours. Her assailant tried to flee but was caught by people in the building.

Another plucky youngster is 12-year-old Edwin Alamo. When three gunmen broke into his home in the Bronx one night at the end of May, Edwin was in the shower. He grabbed his mobile phone and jumped out the bathroom window when he heard the screams of his family members. He called the police, who arrested the attackers after shooting two of them. The family were unscathed.

'I feel like Spider-Man,' Edwin told the Daily News.

The heroic behaviour won the children great praise. 'They were much more astute than I would have been as a kid. It sounds like they were very well trained by their parents or by their schools,' said John Caher, spokesman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The agency launched its Operation Safe Child in the summer of 2005. It works with police departments and non-profit organisations to collect children's fingerprints and photos.

Should anything happen to a child, the agency can send the crucial information to the police. So far the database has information on 130,000 children. It also has the addresses of some 23,000 sex offenders, so parents can be alerted to their presence in a neighbourhood.

For parents, there are dilemmas. 'You tell your kids be polite to people and you also tell them do not talk to strangers. They sound like mixed messages,' said Glenda Lynsen, mother of a four-year-old boy.

But Mr Caher said there was no better way. 'Unfortunately, part of raising children these days is teaching them defence tactics.'

The gloomy truth is they may need those skills. Although New York's crime rate has been dropping, statistics also show the city is far from safe for children. The city arrested 3,469 people for committing crimes against children last year, up 237 from the previous year. And the number of missing children cases - including runaways and abductions - has been increasing since 2002, hitting 5,297 last year.