Kathy Morris was driving to work listening to the radio when she first heard news of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
She pulled over to take it in.
“It was just surreal,” she said. “... I had no idea the impact it would have or how it would change my life, but it did.”
Morris was already interested in community safety, but Sept. 11 intensified that interest.
At the time, she was working as administrative support at Colorado State University’s San Juan Basin Research Center in Hesperus. She had been thinking about a career change, and Sept. 11 provided the extra push she needed.
As Morris looked around to see where she could make an impact, she realized schools, especially in small towns, served as the lifeblood of the community.
“Our schools are our hubs,” said Morris, a resident of Durango since 1978.
Larger cities are not as centered around public K-12 schools, but if something were to happen at a Durango-area school, Morris said it would rock the community to its foundation.
So, she was hired as Durango School District 9-R’s risk manager, housed under the Finance Department. Morris set to work trying to put together what wasn’t really there before – school safety plans.
One of her main strategies was to partner with local law enforcement departments. She noticed after Sept. 11, law enforcement agencies were receiving increased funding, and she worked to ensure officers were regularly in school buildings and involved in the school safety planning stages.
In 2008, Morris applied for and was awarded on behalf of 9-R a Readiness in Emergency Management grant from the U.S. Department of Education that allowed her to integrate the emergency plan materials into classrooms.
In 2010, Morris left the district and worked a brief stint as the Southwest Region Security coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security before working as the Regional Safe School coordinator for the San Juan Boards of Cooperative Educational Services for six years. While working for San Juan BOCES, she oversaw safety in schools for five counties and two tribes. As part of her role, she worked part time in the 9-R district.
However, 9-R decided to separate itself from BOCES, and in 2016, Superintendent Dan Snowberger decided the district needed to house its own centralized security department, in part because of national school shootings, such as Sandy Hook. Morris was hired as the safety and security coordinator.
“As we separated from BOCES, it was definitely a role that I felt strongly we needed to maintain,” Snowberger said. “Kathy was definitely the right person to tap for that.”
For Morris, it was a welcome homecoming.
“I wanted to focus on the community I lived in,” Morris said, rather than stretching herself thin across the region.
As might be expected of a security coordinator in 2020, Morris spends a good portion of her time thinking through how schools can be made safe from potential emergency events. She emphasized she doesn’t want to react to security threats; rather, she hopes to do proactive work to prevent them.
As a result, she tries to make security a daily conversation with educators, security officers and law enforcement departments. After speaking with educators at other schools that have experienced events like school shootings, Morris said, it is clear the best way Durango schools can be prepared is to train, practice and rehearse.
“If you know you have a role to do in an emergency situation, you can remember your role,” she said.
The district’s spokeswoman, Julie Popp, said Morris emphasizes training throughout the district to ensure everyone knows what to do regardless of the event.
An important part of her job is broaching topics that are not easy to talk about, but that doesn’t pose any problems for Morris.
“I like to talk about the elephant in the room,” she said.
Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty believes Morris is perfect for the job because she doesn’t let others dissuade her from what she knows is right.
“She’s the kind of person that if she thinks something is really important, she’s gonna work hard for it and fight for it,” Doughty said.
Morris has also pursued state funding to increase safety and security, such as creating safer school entries; installing ballistic film on the interior of classroom windows; and upgrading radio capacity.
However, for Morris, it all comes back to how to support and create community. She wants to focus on, from her perspective, the root of the problem: fractures in the community resulting in behavioral problems with students. Morris said the schools have different vulnerabilities than existed 20 years ago.
“We have a lot more fractures in our families, which affects behavior,” she said.
Because of the focus on behavior, Morris’ job is wide-ranging – teen suicide and how students are managing virtual learning during COVID-19 are large concerns of hers.
“Our kids need us right now,” she said.
Morris pointed to the Safe2Tell program, which functions as an anonymous tip line for students, as a way the district is encouraging students to find a trusted adult to talk to.
She also works with behavior specialists and school counselors to “ensure the safety and security of a school campus.”
Morris, who serves on the boards of Heart Safe La Plata, the Durango Fire Protection District and the Special District Association, believes working to create a healthy community is the best way to create a safe community.
“I think our community doesn’t realize how much of a gem we have in Kathy Morris,” Snowberger said. “I think Kathy comes at it with a very practical sense that not many bring. She doesn’t have the police officer mindset, she has the ‘what’s best for kids’ mindset and knows enough about law enforcement to ensure it integrates well into our system. ... She’s definitely an unsung hero in the district.”
Morris says she is simply following her passion.
“Service to my community is who I am,” she said. “ I love my job.”