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Safety director with Durango School District 9-R to retire at end of academic year

Kathy Morris reflects on how security has changed over past 30 years
Durango School District 9-R Security Director Kathy Morris began her career with the school district in the finance department in 2001. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Kathy Morris has been a jack of all trades for Durango School District 9-R.

She started with the school district in 2001 as a member of the district’s finance department, specializing in risk management. She then took a hiatus from the district to pursue a Colorado Homeland Security coordinator position in 2010, followed by a six-year stint with San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

All of this before returning to the school district, under the guidance of then-superintendent Dan Snowberger in 2017 to become the director of security. By 2018, Morris had developed a full-time staff of seven employees for the school’s safety and security department.

In December, she announced she would be retiring from her position once the 2023-24 school year was complete.

Morris will still be involved with the district but in more of a consulting role.

“I think that after a while, we’re all very comfortable. And while I try to introduce new strategies, or perspective, it might be time for a new voice and new ideas to move this forward,” she said in an interview about her retirement.

During her time with the district, both as a member of the finance department and as the security director, school safety has been the top priority.

One of her first triumphs was securing a $500,000 readiness and security grant from the U.S. Department of Education. That was in addition to the relationships she began building with law enforcement and fire officials in Durango.

The $500,000 grant allowed the district to start Safe2Tell training and provided each classroom with an emergency Safe2Tell book that educates teachers and students about how to handle emergency situations.

School safety has become a topic for every school district across the country since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Since then, there have been 394 school shootings, according to data from the K-12 School Shooting Database.

Understanding the necessity to protect students at all costs, Morris consistently has discussions with the Durango Police Department about how to handle an array of dangerous situations that could occur on school grounds.

Often, she will work with law enforcement to discuss why safety breaches in the event of other schools might have happened.

“We’re talking and we’re saying, ‘What happened? What can we do better? What are our gaps?,’” she said.

Not only has Morris had to navigate the ever-growing need for school safety education but also the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The thing that I’ve noticed since COVID, is that we’ve got a lot of people who are pretty fragile. And being so fragile, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety,” she said. “It’s just worrisome because of all the behavior that comes from that.”

Some students returned from remote learning during COVID-19 and it was a different environment, because they weren’t always under their parent’s supervision or they weren’t used to being in a school environment.

“They’re trying to cope with not being home or either being overparented or under-parented,” Morris said. “And so, we’ve met some challenges on the behavior side, which behavior has always been our highest risk.”

Divisive belief sets relating to politics and beliefs about the pandemic have been passed down to students by parents and social media.

This has created challenges for educators when it comes to how to approach behavioral issues at school. For Morris, it is about figuring out why students may be acting a certain way and how the district can get students with problematic behavior help.

A common theme in school shootings is for perpetrators to tip off what they are going to do through certain statements or social media posts. That is why it is important for district officials to pay close attention to students’ behaviors and try to help students if they see trouble signs.

At the end of the day, communication with the community and school district staff is the best way to protect students, she said.

“Training is probably the biggest thing that’s near and dear to my heart,” Morris said. “And it’s just because the safest building is the one that has people that know what to do in an emergency.”

She reflected on the many late-night calls she received from the Safe2Tell hotline.

Safe2Tell is a communication platform offered by the Colorado Department of Homeland Security that allows students to anonymously contact law enforcement and district officials regarding instances in which they don’t feel safe.

“It’s a really great program,” Morris said. “They did that forensic look at Columbine and found that, like 79% of those kids (students at Columbine High School) knew that those two boys were going to do (something bad) and they didn’t say anything.”

More recently, the district has had issues with “swatting,” which is the action of making a prank call to emergency services in an attempt to dispatch law enforcement to a scene.

While it has been unnerving, it has also given the district a chance to ensure that its schools are following safety procedures closely.

“It’s really been an opportunity for us to reassure our staff, our students and our families – that we’re responding and we’re in connection with law enforcement (like the) FBI,” she said. “And you know, we’re not just being casual about it or complicit. We’re actually going through the process of assuring safety by either responding in a hold or a lockdown depending on what the threat is.”

Throughout her career, Morris is most proud of obtaining a $1.3 million state disbursement grant and sitting on the Colorado School District Self Insurance Pool board of directors, a pool that oversees close to 80% of the school districts in the state of Colorado.

She has also been integral in the district’s School Resource Officer program that seeks to improve relationships between youths and law enforcement.

In addition, she has been an advocate for other school safety changes like the entry vestibules and identification cards for district staff members.

Throughout the district, she has been well-respected by her colleagues.

“To say that Kathy Morris is dedicated to creating safe school environments is an understatement,” said 9-R Director of Student Support Services Vanessa Giddings. “Her passion and persistence in our community has made an incredibly powerful impact as schools have been forced to consider concerns such as school violence.

“Nearly 17 years ago, I met Kathy for the first time during a tragedy that occurred in our school community,” she said. “I was a teacher at the time, and one of my students died when he was playing with a firearm with his brother over the weekend. The loss of a student was beyond any grief I ever thought I would experience as a teacher.”

Having Morris to support her helped rebuild her classroom culture and get through that period of her career, she said.

9-R Human Resources Director Laura Galido said Morris was extremely dedicated to her cause throughout her time with the district.

“This lens shapes everything she does including her path for retirement – graciously providing ample notice to us so we can secure the next person for this role as well as assist in onboarding that new person prior to her departure,” Galido said.

For 9-R spokeswoman Karla Sluis, Morris has been an anchor through many tough moments while on the job.

“School safety is a challenging and high-stress responsibility,” Sluis said. “Nothing is more important than the well-being of our children and staff. Kathy has stayed calm through countless emergencies, developing trusting relationships with emergency first responders and built a solid system that will serve our district for years to come.”

In retirement, Morris looks forward to spending more time with her family. However, she still wants to continue working within the community.

She has a granddaughter who is part of the junior high rodeo series that takes place every year in Cortez and she is excited to have time to watch her.

She’s also considering putting her hat in the ring for the 2024 La Plata County commissioner race.

“I am thinking about it because I still have a lot of energy and I love Durango,” Morris said.


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