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Documentary hoping to educate on sexual violence will include scenes from IMPACT training at UND

After nearly 20 hours of training, spanning three days, 18 women finished the self-defense training with long hugs and promises to keep in touch and continue to stay strong.

Ellen Snortland

After nearly 20 hours of training, spanning three days, 18 women finished the self-defense training with long hugs and promises to keep in touch and continue to stay strong.

For two of the women, it was particularly meaningful: the class began on Nov. 22, the 10th anniversary of the abduction of UND student Dru Sjodin as she left a Grand Forks shopping mall. Her body was discovered five months later in a rural ravine near Crookston, Minn.

Dru's mother, Linda Walker of Pequot Lakes, Minn., and her cousin, Janelle Sjodin, Minneapolis, were among those who took the training that ended on Sunday afternoon.

"It was something I felt I needed to do," said Walker. "I feel that every young woman who is given the opportunity should do it too."

Their experience in the class -- and Dru's story -- will be part of a 90-minute documentary that Ellen Snortland of Los Angeles is directing in hopes of educating audiences in theaters around the country.

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Alfonso Rodriguez, a registered sex offender who lived in Crookston, Minn., at the time, was eventually found guilty of abducting and killing Dru Sjodin and is imprisoned in Indiana. His case is being appealed.

The IMPACT training, offered through the UND Women's Center, is aimed at teaching women and men the self-defense skills needed to stop a physical assault.

Kay Mendick, UND Women's Center director, has led the IMPACT training for the past 14 years and has trained more than 3500 people, said Snortland, who grew up in Huron and Rapid City, S.D.

Her documentary is based on her book, "Beauty Bites Beast," which chronicles her first brush with violence when she was assaulted by a man wielding a knife in a staircase leading to her LA apartment.

The incident changed her life and perspective, she said. "I could no longer walk around saying, 'that's never going to happen to me.'"

"We're trained to be 'nice,' no matter what," she said. "I cherish that; I don't want to lose that. But if the only tool I have is 'nice,' people -- predators -- are counting on that. I needed to get other skills."

Now, "if I need to fight for my life, I can."

Her mission, she said, is for every woman and child to have access to this self-defense education.

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"It's no different than swimming lessons ... which is a form of defense against water."

Her documentary will explore the barriers to accomplishing this mission, she said. "We all say, 'It's never going to happen to me.' We don't like to think of women dealing with that kind of ugliness."

And it will demonstrate the benefits such training provides which, she said, "are far beyond the fighting. Women with this knowledge are more confident, friendly, they stand up for themselves."

Her book, she said, "was not a 'how to' but rather a "how come?' Why is this area of knowledge shut off from women?"

Also included in the documentary is Angela Champagne-From, Anoka, Minn., who participated in this weekend's class and called it "intense, raw and real."

"There's a lot of raw anger in the room," she said.

Champagne-From was assaulted by a man in a business suit who approached her from behind as she walked to her car at 4 p.m. after work in April 2012 in a downtown Minneapolis parking ramp.

"He held a knife to my throat and said, 'We're going for a ride,'" she said.

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She learned later that the man had a history of sexual criminal behavior in other states and had been classified as a Level III sex offender. After moving to Minnesota, he was registered as a Level I offender, a level that designates a person as "least likely to reoffend," she said.

She successfully fought him off but sustained a 10-inch knife wound in the abdomen, lost nearly half her blood and went through extensive surgery.

"He said I was lucky I was a fighter," she said. "He left me to bleed to death."

She called 911 but "they were unable to locate me" so she ran down four stories as her assailant fled in an elevator, she said.

"When people say to me, 'You were lucky,' I say I don't believe in luck. I'm supposed to be here. All the odds were against me. You don't survive a 10-inch wound."

If her assailant had been registered as a Level III offender, "they would have found him immediately" in a check of offenders living in the area, she said. He lived only four blocks from the ramp where he attacked her.

Because of his Level I status, it took longer. He was apprehended after his photo "went viral" on Facebook. He is serving a 20-year term in prison, she said.

After her story appeared in a Minneapolis Star Tribune article, Snortland invited her to be part of the documentary.

Janelle Sjodin said Mendick, invited her and Walker to attend an IMPACT "graduation" in the fall of 2004, when Walker spoke at UND for the Clothesline project, which aims to raise awareness of the prevalence and impact of domestic violence.

At the IMPACT graduation, Janelle Sjodin said, "The image of those women's faces -- the strength, the fire in their eyes, their determination and will to fight -- that image has never left me."

Until this fall, however, the emotional fallout from the tragedy of losing Dru prevented them from taking the class, she said.

More important than learning the physical defensive moves, she said, "is the empowerment, the strength, and knowing that you have that fire in you, that if someone tries to take advantage of you, you're going to stop it.

"It's the strength you walk out with," she said. "I can't stress enough how it's going to change your life."

Such training should begin at earlier ages, she said, which is one of Walker's goals in her work as an advocate to raise public awareness and strengthen laws against sexual predators.

"I don't know why it isn't being done," Sjodin said.

The greatest benefit of taking the IMPACT class, Walker said, was "meeting these incredible young ladies who know who they are and their self-worth."

She praised Mendick and the university for providing the training.

"Everybody should be aware of it, and other programs should move forward," Walker said. "Have the community get involved."

Knudson covers health and family. Call her at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572 ext.1107 or email pknudson@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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