By Ashley Bergner Newton Kansan

Teachers and staff want to make sure Newton schools offer an environment that's as safe and nurturing as possible. Although no one likes to think about emergencies — such as a natural disaster or a dangerous intruder — that could occur while school is in session, part of school safety is being prepared for crises.

Newton school board member Barbara Bunting, along with USD 373 Superintendent Deborah Hamm, recently attended a Kansas Association of School Boards school safety and security conference in Topeka, where they learned about preventing and responding to threats.

"We must be vigilant to student and staff safety and appropriate adequate resources," Bunting said. "... I applaud Dr. Hamm in her efforts to update our Crisis Plan and know our Board of Education will continue to review safety policies as the needs of students change."

Bunting said one of the presentations at the conference that stood out to her the most was how to identify possible school shooters and prevent tragedies from occurring long before a shooter enters a building.

According to Paul Wade, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, Kansas Terrorism Task Force, bullying is often a factor in school violence. He shared a study that revealed 70 percent of attackers felt bullied, teased or persecuted, and almost 80 percent exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts prior to the attack.

While most attackers had no prior history of violent or criminal behavior, they did exhibit warning signs that were tragically ignored. In 93 percent of the incidents, the attacker engaged in some behavior prior to the attack that caused others — such as school officials, parents, teachers, police or fellow students — to be concerned.

"The recurrent theme in nearly all case studies was that the perpetrator (of school violence) had experienced a significant loss and had been bullied," Bunting said. "While we cannot control the lives of students outside of the school day, we can vehemently address bullying issues in school."

Bunting believes the key to preventing a violent act from occurring at a Newton school is promoting positive, meaningful relationships within the district. Students who are loners or victims of bullying may not feel loved or accepted, and may act out violently.

Although support from teachers and peers is important, Bunting said anyone who works for the school district — a bus driver or a food service worker — could serve as a mentor and friend to a hurting student. She also advocates an increase in awareness of how social media like Facebook and Twitter can amplify bullying and continue bullying behavior outside school walls.

She said another presentation at the conference revealed the danger of another type of intruder: a non-custodial parent. A parent who no longer has custody of their child may attempt to enter a school building and interact with the child or staff.

Turmoil from an unhealthy home environment can cause problems for a child in school, and staff need to recognize signs of child abuse.

Bunting said the conference was a valuable experience, and the district plans to continue updating crisis procedures and working with the community to make schools safer for students.

"Our children are our most precious resource," Bunting said.