Don’t mess with Erica Seaford.
The 13-year-old York Middle School student can subdue attackers in 40 seconds, only breaking a mild sweat.
One of “a rare breed,” her instructors say she blends the "physical and the mental together," having "plowed through" girls who, on paper, should have been more skilled and more of a challenge.
She often faces off against guys twice her size. She often wins.
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She can wrangle an opponent in an impressive maneuver that compels them into submission with her legs firmly wrapped around their necks. At the Rock Hill Jiu Jitsu academy where she trains, exercises and spars twice a week, it's called a "triangle."
On a recent afternoon, Erica lined up against a wall alongside more than a dozen other young martial artists-in-training at the Hanebrick Jiu Jitsu Academy & Fitness Center on Corporate Boulevard, parallel to Interstate 77. They listened and watched as their instructors demonstrated how to escape the clutches of an opponent who mounts them. Erica was one of two girls in class that day.
Nicole Seaford, her mother, says Erica "exudes confidence."
Ask Erica, and she will say it’s more of an assurance that “if something does go down, not that I’m going to make it happen, but I’m not going to be so scared if it does.”
It wasn't that way six months ago when a girl who had bullied Erica on their school bus for months battered her as other students watched.
A police report says the girl and her sister began talking about Erica's shoes. One of the girls grabbed Erica's hair, began pulling it and started punching her. After Erica, then 12, fell to the floor, the suspect continued hitting her in the face and head before she dragged her down the aisle by her hair. The suspect's sister stopped the assault, police reported, when she told the assailant to stop hitting Erica. The sisters went to the back of the bus.
Erica was taken to a Charlotte hospital, suffering from a swollen eye, cut lip and several bruises.
Erica’s ordeal was captured on bus surveillance video and prompted Nicole Seaford and several other parents to challenge the York School Board on what they called a lackadaisical approach to resolving many issues on that particular bus. The girl who assaulted Erica had apparently been expelled from the bus, Nicole Seaford said, but was allowed to ride it one last day – Dec. 13, the day she attacked Erica.
Nicole Seaford lobbied for change in bus expulsion policies and called for the driver who she alleges did nothing to stop the attack to be punished.
Matt Brown, assistant York Schools superintendent, would not comment on whether the driver was terminated, calling it a “personnel issue.” He also would not comment on whether the student charged with assault had been suspended from the bus and given one more day to ride it last year.
He said administrators reviewed video of the incident and changed policies. Students charged with assault are suspended from the bus for one year, he said. If the same student is accused of assault again, he or she can face expulsion from the district’s transportation department. Before, he said, administrators and principals would decide what punitive measures would be taken against students accused of assault on a school bus.
Erica will return to the same bus next month when she starts eighth grade. Nicole Seaford said she’s been told the bus’ new driver is “very good” and has “control” of the bus. “That makes a difference,” she said.
Erica is hoping for a change, saying “there are a lot of things that happened on that bus that never should have happened.”
Her assault ranks high on the list. After Erica’s attack, kids at school talked about it...a lot. Rumors spread about what really happened on the bus.
“They still talk about it,” Erica said, and at first, it “drained my self-esteem.”
“Now it’s like whatever, believe what you want to believe, because I know it’s not true,” she said.
What is true is that Erica has found a place to bolster her confidence.
The Hanebrink Academy & Fitness Center is "very heavily Jiu Jitsu-based," said instructor Joey McPeek, adding that students are taught a variety of techniques they can use to “control” and “neutralize” an opponent.
"It's pretty much just a reality-based fighting system that we use," said boxing coach and Jiu Jitsu instructor Duke Reeves. "There are a lot of real-life situations that you're in... everybody doesn't want to be in the cage, everybody doesn't want to be Bruce Lee. We have some people who want to feel good about themselves, want to take care of themselves if somebody tries to mug them in the parking lot."
“Hopefully, they never have to use it,” said Charles Hanebrink, the academy’s founder and a martial arts instructor in Rock Hill for the past 25 years. “But, if they do have to use it, they can defend themselves to the best of their ability.”
Erica is one of about 35 students in the kids combat class, where students are exposed to wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts techniques.
When her father first took her to the academy, “she was just kind of staring at me with a look in her eyes like she was so eager to learn," McPeek recalled. "She came in and it's over from there."
Reeves said Erica has a gift for "marrying the physical and mental together," making her a smart and athletic fighter.
When the kids class ends at about 7 p.m., Erica stays behind and trains with people like Kris Mackey, who became the academy's first black-belt student. That training led Erica to a tournament in June. She entered in the beginner's division.
After she "ran through" a girl in her division, tournament organizers advanced her to an intermediate level, McPeek said. She beat that girl, too. She took home a first-place gold medal and a sword.
She's a blue-belt who never wore a yellow one. She jumped from a white belt straight to blue during a test when her teachers decided she was skilled enough to skip a level.
"She didn't necessarily have the tools before, but she has the drive and the heart, which is something we can't teach," McPeek said. "Now, she's training with purpose."
Hanebrink could not recall enrolling a student in the past who had been as severely beaten as Erica. But, he does have experience training kids who have been bullied or harassed. Many of them, he said, isolate themselves for fear of being harmed again.
“She had the motivation to come out,” he said.
“You have kids who stay in the house from being cyberbullied,” Reeves said. “She was actually physically assaulted and she still comes in. If you didn’t ask her about it, you would never know.”
“It wouldn’t help any if I just stayed at home,” Erica said. “It would get worse.”
The academy attracts students who might be worried about being picked on as they transition from junior high to high school. Some students were bullies themselves and now seek a way to control their anger. The school is not designed to create bullies or teach people how to hurt others.
"We always teach when the threat is gone, it's time to let up," Reeves said. "Self-defense can turn to self-offense, where you can turn into the person doing the assault within seconds."
"Our kids will never be a bully and never be bullied," McPeek said.
‘...Like a sponge’
After his daughter was assaulted, Daniel Seaford, a York County Sheriff’s deputy who takes the adult Jiu Jitsu class, enrolled his daughter in the academy. She’s always had an interest in martial arts and asked her parents to allow her to learn self-defense skills.
“I said, ‘OK, she’s my daughter but she really wants to be able to defend herself,’” Daniel Seaford said.
“I really felt helpless,” he said. “I’m her protectora big strong guy, but I can’t always be there for her.”
He admits he was nervous when he saw that she was the only girl in the class. He doesn’t worry anymore.
“From like the first, second time she was here, I was like, she’s fine,” he said.
“I get along with boys better anyway,” said Erica, a tomboy at heart. “Me and girls don’t get along too wellthey cause too much drama.”
Already a natural athlete after playing soccer for years, Erica didn’t have trouble adjusting to the physical intensity of wrestling, boxing and martial arts. “She took to it like a sponge,” Daniel Seaford said.
The assault, he said, damaged her self-esteem and sense of security.
“We really wanted to try to repair that,” he said. “The last thing we want her to do is bully somebody like she was bullied. But, I do want her to be able to realize that if she ever gets bullied again or put in that situation”
“I don’t have to put up with it,” Erica interjected.
“She can defend herself,” Nicole Seaford added.
“She won’t be hurt like she was the last (time),” Erica’s dad continued.
“I feel definitely better that I can protect myself,” Erica said. “I don’t think anybody would even try (to hurt her) because it shows through in your confidence.”
She walks with her head facing forward. Though she’s not sure if she would win round two against her assailant should she attack her again, Erica says she feels the girl would be reluctant to try her.
“She pushed me around and bullied me, I just kind of let her,” Erica said. “One day, I said enough. I knew it was going to happen, but I’d rather take that than get bullied everyday.
“Now that I have confidence, I won’t let her do it from the start,” she said. “It’s going to show her that I’m not scared. And, that will only scare her.”