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"Be a German shepherd. Not a poodle."

Those words of wisdom come from physical education teacher Jean Lombardi, whose self-defense courses for high school girls are among the most memorable and popular classes in the Franklin Regional School District in Murrysville, Pa.

"Out on the streets," Ms. Lombardi instructs her young students, "no one messes with a German shepherd."

Ms. Lombardi, 44, has been teaching the course to junior high and high school girls in the 4,000-student district for 22 years. She says self-defense classes she took while studying at the University of Pittsburgh to become a teacher sparked the idea.

The three-week classes, part of the district's required, 18-week physical education program, are designed to teach girls--a separate self-defense class is offered for boys--how not to be victims. It blends class time, where girls learn about crime, rape prevention, and sexual harassment, with time on the mat, where they practice how to fend off an attacker.

"And we do a lot of screaming," Ms. Lombardi says. "Not dainty little screams either. Confident ones that can scare and distract an attacker." Ms. Lombardi says it takes a bit of prodding before girls can really belt it out.

The class teaches students to mix common sense with elements of tae kwon do, wrestling, and scrappy street fighting.

If trouble arises, Ms. Lombardi tells her students, the best options are to try to run from a potential attacker first, try to reason with him second, and attempt to distract him, third.

Only if those tactics fail, should they fight with all their might--and any handy pens, keys, or nail files. "Fighting is the last resort," she says.

Transforming dainty, self-conscious adolescent girls--poodles--into self-aware, self-assured young women--German shepherds--is her biggest challenge, and best reward, Ms. Lombardi says.

"It's great to see that confidence come out," she says. "I have kids come back years later and tell me how they remember what I taught them."

--KERRY A. WHITE [email protected]

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