Three little blond boys stood in a line in a strip-center dojo in Hernando County's rural east end. Gambatte Karate is in the Sunrise Plaza with a Quiznos sub shop and a Winn-Dixie grocery store. This Little Dragons class not long ago was for kids 4 and 5 years old.
"Are you ready!?!" sensei Tim Hartranft yelled.
"Yeah!" said the three little boys.
"Are you sure!?!"
"I. CAN'T. HEAR. YOU!!!"
"Because I'm a stranger," Hartranft finally said, "and I'm coming to get you!"
Gambatte Karate distributed a flier earlier this fall to homes around Brooksville. It announced a back-to-school special and asked a question of parents and their children: "Is there a SEX OFFENDER living near YOU?"
Bring your children to the dojo, the flier advertised, and "they will learn how to defend themselves."
News coverage of the worst instances of child abduction has parents talking in tense tones about sex offenders. That's especially true around west-central Florida because of a series of recent high-profile, close-to-home cases: Carlie Brucia in Sarasota, Sarah Lunde in Ruskin, Jessica Lunsford in Homosassa.
"People are just abducting kids like crazy," said Nicole Worley, the mother of Tyler Wilkes, 4, one of the boys in the class.
"They're everywhere," Hartranft said. "It's like a virus."
The truth: Violent crime has been going down for a generation, in Florida and around the country, including child abductions, murders and sexual assaults. The number of sex offenses in the state has gone down every year since 1997 except one.
Kids have a better chance of dying in a car crash or falling down stairs.
"I'm not saying that there are not monsters out there, and I'm not saying there's nothing to fear," said Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods. "But there's also a risk in raising kids under virtual house arrest. They're less likely to learn the kind of independence and judgment that, frankly, a democracy demands of its citizens."
Hartranft, a black belt sensei, moved to Spring Hill from the Seattle area in October 2005 and opened Gambatte Karate in January. The dojo has thin gray carpet and red and blue mats.
"If we can save one kid from getting picked up and molested or raped or murdered," Hartranft said, "I think I've done my job."
A recent Little Dragons class started with jumping jacks. Parents and little brothers and sisters sat in metal folding chairs pushed up against the walls. First the boys had to memorize and recite their parents' first names, addresses and phone numbers.
The sensei led the boys in punches and jabs and kicks that came in sets of 10.
"Attack No. 1!" Hartranft shouted. Punches with the right hand.
A baby with one of the parents on the side of the room began to cry.
"Attack No. 2!" Lefty punches.
"Attack No. 3!" Kicks.
Hartranft gave them all high fives.
He knelt and so did the boys. They faced each other.
Hartranft told them it's okay to bite. To slap the ears and to pull the hair. He reminded them that fingers and thumbs are good for gouging at eyes.
It was quiet in the dojo.
"Now," Hartranft said, "who's a stranger?"
The boys said somebody you don't know.
"You know the neighbor. Is it okay to go somewhere with him?"
The boys said no.
Then Hartranft explained that even "Aunt Millie" can be a stranger. That even someone you know can hurt you.
The boys looked confused.
Hartranft got up from the mat, and the blond boys in the little white karate suits did the same. The sensei put on black sunglasses and a white helmet to look mean. One of the boys said he looked like an alien.
Hartranft asked them if they were ready. If they were sure.
"YEEESSS!!!" they squealed.
He growled and ran after them and tried to scoop them up. The boys did as they had been taught. They scurried and they screamed.
"I need help!"
"Stay away from me!"
They were given candy at the end of the lesson.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.
A new feature
Encounters is a new feature dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, please contact editor Mike Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2924.