LEWIS CENTER, Ohio (WCMH)–Three high school seniors want every student in Ohio to learn self-defense skills, and they’re turning their idea into action.

“When you learn how to protect yourself and how to defend yourself, you feel more prepared,” said Vaidehi Patel, one of the Olentangy High School students who started what they call The Empowerment Project. “It keeps you calm, it keeps you collected, and most importantly, it boosts your confidence.”

The Empowerment Project started as an idea during the girls’ junior year, for an assignment in their marketing class through the school’s Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) program.

”We were just bouncing ideas off of each other, thinking about what to do our project on. At that time, I worked at the mall. And I remember I’d go to my car, alone,” Patel said. “I remember being scared because I was alone, it was dark out, and most importantly, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to defend myself if someone came up to me and tried to attack me.”

Patel told classmates Sydney Shultz and Abby Purdy about it.

“They were a bit wary at first, but then they realized they felt the same way,” Patel said.

“I just always have a fear of being by myself and going places by myself because you don’t know what could happen,” Shultz said.

“As women, all across the board… We have these instinctive fears and we just wanted to let people be more confident and empowered,” said Purdy, who reached out to NBC4 Investigates about The Empowerment Project after seeing previous reporting on rapes at The Ohio State University, and the university’s measures to prevent sexual violence.

The students surveyed the entire school and said they were surprised by the results.

“We found that one-third of our females in the school thought that the self-defense class would empower them to feel safer,” Purdy said.

“Fifty percent of female students … all had stated a fear of kidnapping, sexual assault, or like rape,” Shultz added. “Our main goal for the project is to get the self-defense curriculum standards added to the Ohio Department of Education within a health class.”

The girls are using their own community as a launching pad. They’ve spoken with school administrators, Olentangy Schools district administrators, and their school resource officer, Dep. James Mox.

“The more people that we can teach and to build confidence so they walk taller, walk with more encouragement in daily life to help move down the line and to be safer through the world, would be great,” Mox said, telling NBC4 that he fully supports the efforts of The Empowerment Project.

After the students approached Mox in September, he and other Delaware County deputies hosted self-defense classes outside of school hours.

“They loved it,” Mox said. “The young ladies and men came to us and said, ‘Hey, we definitely need to do a more in-depth class.”

The Olentangy Schools is listening, too.

“Olentangy Schools supports the student voice in curriculum and encourages students to take advantage of valuable learning experiences in programs like DECA. (The students’) focus on personal safety has provided opportunities that engage and benefit her peers while teaching leadership skills and entrepreneurship experience,” said a statement emailed to NBC4 by district officials.

A district spokesperson said that while changing the curriculum is a long and complex process, the district is in the early stages of discussions over how to include self-defense lessons.

“I thought that this was going to be an issue that was just going to be pushed to the side, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how willing everyone is to like step in and help out, and be like, ‘This is something we believe is important,’” Purdy said.

For Shultz, Purdy, and Patel, The Empowerment Project has become a learning experience that transcends the walls of a classroom or the four years of high school.

“You can’t think small, and we have to go big with this,” Purdy said. “Because it’s not just a community issue. It’s a world issue.”

From her experience, Patel offered her advice to other young people: “Talk to your school. Talk to your community, and see what you can do. There will always be opportunities for you to do something.”

The girls are currently collecting signatures on a change.org petition for Ohio lawmakers, calling on them to make self-defense a required part of the high school curriculum.

Rapes and Ohio State University

NBC4 ran a series of reports on rapes at Ohio State in November 2021: