January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and McPherson County Sheriff Jerry Montagne said it is something people should be aware of and report.

"It's like sexual assault — it's one of the least reported (crimes)," Montagne said.

According to Kansas law, stalking is defined as "recklessly engaging in a course of conduct targeted at a specific person which would cause a reasonable person in the circumstances of the targeted person to fear for such person's safety, or the safety of a member of such person's immediate family and the targeted person is actually placed in such fear."

"Stalking is just the preamble to battery, sexual assault or even homicide," Montagne said. "The suspect watches the (victim) closely and knows their habits even better than they do."

Stalking activity can include threatening a person's safety or the safety of their immediate family. It can also include following, approaching or confronting a targeted person or entering their home, work, school or other place where they are known to be. Damaging a person's residence or property, injuring their pet or communicating with them via phone, mail or electronic message can also be considered stalking.

A person can face charges of stalking even when a third party carries out the action. Stalking can range from being classified as a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on the frequency and severity of the incidents.

According to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation's Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Sexual Assault In Kansas Report for 2017, 36 protection from stalking orders were filed in McPherson County.

The report also noted most victims of stalking are usually between the ages of 15 and 49, but can be older or younger, and 83.5 percent are female. Stalking suspects fell primarily between the ages of 15 and 59 and 83.2 percent were male. An ex-spouse or ex-partner made up 41 percent of the stalking suspects; 17 percent were acquaintances.

"The problems come when you have kids involved, because you still have to talk and communicate," Montagne said.

Montagne estimated around 100 stalking incidents were reported in McPherson County in the past year.

There are several strategies you can employ to avoid becoming a victim of stalking, including letting friends know where you will be, keeping a porch light on and have keys ready to enter your house or car.

"The biggest thing is be aware of your surroundings," Montagne said. "If someone's watching you, you can usually tell."

Don't advertise that you live alone, Montagne advised, and consider having a male voice on your voicemail.

You may also want to carry pepper spray or a stun gun which, with training, can aid you if you are attacked.

"If a person feels like they're being stalked — with valid reason — then let law enforcement know and we will check into it as soon as possible," Montagne said.

Safehope, which provides advocacy and support to survivors and secondary victims of domestic and sexual violence in Harvey, Marion and McPherson counties, provides these tips for stalking victims.

- If possible, have a phone nearby at all times, preferably one to which the stalker has never had access. Memorize emergency numbers, and make sure that 911 and helpful family or friends are on speed dial.

- Vary routines, including changing routes to work, school, the grocery store and other places regularly frequented. Limit time spent alone and try to shop at different stores and visit different bank branches.

- When out of the house or work environment, try not to travel alone and try to stay in public areas.

- Get a new, unlisted phone number. Leave the old number active and connected to an answering machine or voicemail. Have a friend, advocate or law enforcement screen the calls, and save any messages from the stalker. These messages, particularly those that are explicitly abusive or threatening, can be critical evidence for law enforcement to build a stalking case against the offender.

- Do not interact with the person stalking or harassing you. Responding to stalker’s actions may reinforce their behavior.

- Consider obtaining a protective order against the stalker. Some states offer stalking protective orders and other victims may be eligible for protective orders under their state’s domestic violence statutes.

- Trust your instincts. If you’re somewhere that doesn’t feel safe, either find ways to make it safer or leave.

- If in imminent danger, go to a safe place like a police station, domestic violence shelter or public area.

- Identify escape routes out of your house. Teach them to your children.

- Install solid core doors with dead bolts. If all keys cannot be accounted for, change the locks and secure the spare keys. Fix any broken windows or doors.

- Have a code word you use with your children that tells them when they need to leave.

- Inform neighbors and, if residing in an apartment, any onsite managers about the situation, providing them with a photo or description of the stalker and any vehicles they may drive if known. Ask your neighbors to call the police if they see the stalker at your house. Agree on a signal you will use when you need them to call the police.

- Pack a bag with important items you’d need if you had to leave quickly. Put the bag in a safe place, or give it to a friend or relative you trust.

- Give a picture of the stalker to security, supervisors and friends at work and school.

- Ask a security guard to walk you to your car or to the bus.

- Give the school or daycare center a copy of your protective order. Tell them not to release your children to anyone without talking to you first.

- Make sure your children know to tell a teacher or administrator at school if they see the stalker.

- Make sure that the school and work know not to give your address or phone number to anyone.

- Keep a copy of your protective order at work.

Contact Patricia Middleton by email at pmiddleton@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.