Making the school buildings of USD 373 as safe as possible was a common theme touched on earlier this week during a meeting of the Newton Board of Education, as both district staff and members of the public brought up some ideas for how to improve safety measures throughout the schools.

Newton citizen Ron Eggert spoke up during public comments to make a request of the Newton school board he had made of the Newton City Commission earlier this year, fulfilling a promise to the latter and beseeching the board to find a way to fund three additional positions for school resource officers.

Given the recent school shootings in Florida, Maryland and elsewhere around the country, the additional security and protection is something Eggert stated needs to happen because of that growing prevalence.

"I think it's a matter of importance to this community," Eggert said. "We always say something like that can't happen here, but it can."

With federal funds potentially being made available to improve security measures in schools, Eggert urged the Newton school board not to let that opportunity pass it by.

"My request is that you be proactive rather than reactive," Eggert said. "Step forward now to try to secure those funds ... and use it to harden the schools."

Jason Chalashtari, Walton Rural Life Center principal, was also encouraging the district to be proactive — though Chalashtari was part of a group discussing a more internal safety matter, as part of the anti-bullying task force presenting at the meeting.

Speaking to how those incidents routinely present themselves, Chalashtari noted there are often lulls both immediately prior to and following the inciting action — action the task force is looking to deter in the district schools.

"What we want to avoid is those lulls. We want to be proactive at all times and see what we can do for resources and education and communication in our community," Chalashtari said. "Just the fact that this task force exists is a positive step in the right direction."

The task force was initially formed in December with the purpose of reviewing the district's current bullying policies and systems in place, while also setting a goal of establishing a clear definition of bullying, creating an action plan with a timeline and fostering more communication throughout the district (among teachers, students and parents) about anti-bullying initiatives.

Fellow task force member Rachel McClaran noted that while the group is by no means finished, it is making headway strengthening community partnerships and highlighting the positive anti-bullying efforts already going in USD 373 (i.e. the Birdies against Bullying golf tournament, Newton Be Nice, bullying night at Chisholm Middle School, etc.).

Additionally, the anti-bullying task force is working to clarify the concept and make it universally understandable for all parties. McClaran noted the group is developing a series of graphics/bullet points to make the definition more digestible for the community.

Defining a set of behaviors (kind, conflict, rude or mean and bullying) to better illustrate what constitutes bullying is also a current initiative being taken on by the task force to help in that process of understanding those situations.

"What we're trying to do is figure out how to educate people so that we're not always crying wolf because that makes it really hard for schools to address true bullying behavior when everything is called bullying," Chalashtari said.

Providing criteria is something the task force hopes will help explain situations of bullying to parents, so it is clear just when exactly the anti-bullying procedures may need to be invoked.

Communicating that criteria and terms to parents is something the task force plans to continue working on, while the group presenting noted it also aims to work on improving reporting such behavior within the schools themselves.

Raising awareness is also part of the plan for communication. Bringing in speakers to discuss bullying at the district schools is one measure being taken in that regard moving forward, while the task force also hopes to create a positive atmosphere that will grow empathy and resilience — two traits Chalashtari noted can go a long way towards stopping bullying — across the schools and homes in the district.