After 17 students were shot and killed in Parkland, Florida last year, Benzie County wanted to make their schools safer. They decided to address that by putting cops in their schools, and taxpayers agreed to pay for it. That sounds like a good thing but it turns out it was more complicated than it seemed.
Benzie County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Miller started in the schools in January. He serves 1,400 students in the Benzie County Central Schools district and deals with any criminal activity.
On a February morning, things are quiet at Benzie Central High School, and Miller sits in his office tallying up the issues he deals with. Top of the list: vaping. He also deals with bullying, kids skipping class and “your typical kids bringing cigarettes and things like that to school.”
Miller says the very fact that he’s there is community policing at its best.
“Not all kids have a positive outlook on law enforcement, especially in today’s world,” he says. “It’s awesome to be able to bridge that gap.”
He wants to be a positive role model and says it seems to be working. Kids come to his office just to talk and get things off their chests.
Miller monitors security footage and looks for anything unusual, like kids clustered in the hall when they’re not supposed to be or a door propped open.
When students fill the hallways between classes, Miller heads out to monitor. He stands at the top of the hallway and chats with the students as they go by. They talk mostly about sports; one kid shouts, “Miller!” in greeting.
“When I was in school, you didn’t think about the Sandy Hooks,” Miller says. “Columbine happened, but you didn’t go to school with that thought. Times have changed so much; that’s what you think about now.”
How the county got school cops:
Benzie County used to have school cops – also called school resource officers – nearly a decade ago. But they had to stop that program after the district ran out of money.
Jeff Miller switched from a road patrol deputy to a school cop this winter after county residents passed a millage in November. It was approved by 55 percent of voters.
The tax was for two school cops, one in Benzie County Central Schools and the other in Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools. The millage lasts four years and costs $0.18 per $1,000 in property value.
Some residents assumed that meant those cops would work for the Benzie County Sheriff and serve the whole county when school was out.
“In the summertime, we could have utilized that extra body,” says Undersheriff Kyle Rosa. “We would have done great things with it, but I guess it didn’t work out that way.”
What ended up happening is the other cop went to the City of Frankfort, and the county will send half the millage money to pay for it. That’s tax money collected from all of Benzie County just paying for a city cop.
Rosa rationalizes this by saying taxes aren’t always distributed equally.
“That is the ugly reality,” he says.
Either way, this move frustrated a number of people – none of whom wanted to speak on the record about it because they said it could jeopardize their jobs. They didn’t understand why the county board made this decision.
But Benzie County Commissioner Evan Warsecke says he doesn’t see an issue with it. He says the decision was made because the county thought the school resource officer in Frankfort should work for the City of Frankfort.
“I’d rather focus on not the color of the jerseys of the kids in the school or the color of the uniforms of the officer," says Warsecke. “I’d rather focus on the fact that we have officers in the schools, keeping all of our kids safe.”
But there still is no officer in Frankfort making that happen, and there probably won’t be before the school year is up. The Frankfort Chief of Police says they’re still reviewing applications.
Undersheriff Rosa says what matters most to him is that they made progress with safety in schools.
“We did more than talk about it,” says Rosa. “Our group made this happen. Is it perfect? Probably not.”
He hopes county voters see the value of cops in schools if there's another millage request in four years.