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Alert over sex attacks

Female students and staff at Weston college and Weston sixth form college are being offered self-defence classes as a serial sex attacker continues to terrorise the seaside town.

Self-defence demonstrations were held for the first time this week, with the option of further lessons for those who want them.

Six women, aged between 17-42 have already been attacked and the college says it is trying to strike the balance between creating a climate of fear and encouraging sensible precautions. Avon and Somerset police have been visiting all college sites to offer advice.

In the three weeks after the first attack, 16,000 personal attack alarms were distributed to local women. The service has cost the force pound;3,000 a day but has already paid off - the most recent victim set hers off when ambushed and the attacker ran off. North Somerset council, local firms and other bodies have contributed pound;28,000 to ensure stocks don't run out.

None of the victims are thought to have college connections but union president Matt Currie says there is "apprehension" among females. "I have friends who are reluctant to come into Weston," he said. "If we go out it tends to be out of town." The attacks have been concentrated on two areas.

"It's something we're taking very seriously," said college spokesman Sue Curtis. "Personal safety has always been incorporated into our tutorial programme but we're now giving it higher priority." Guidance includes not walking alone - one attack was in daylight, around 1pm - and encouraging use of public transport. Students are being dissuaded from using personal stereos if going on foot. A poster campaign has reinforced safety messages.

Other options being considered are for female staff working late to use a car park near the college entrance and caretakers to escort lone women to vehicles. Ms Curtis could not say if numbers had dropped at evening classes. "Anecdotally we're not aware of reduced attendance," she said.

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