Questions & Answers with community faces
According to federal definition, a School Resource Office (SRO) is a career law enforcement officer with sworn authority who is assigned to work in collaboration with schools and community-based organizations to fulfill specific duties, such as educating students in crime and illegal drug use prevention and safety; developing or expanding community justice initiatives for students; and training students in conflict resolution, restorative justice, and criminal and illegal drug use awareness.
In other words, the three main roles of an SRO are: educator (i.e. guest lecturer), informal counselor/mentor, and law enforcement officer.
“Their duties range from perking up sullen students to directing bus traffic to settling disputes to keeping an eye out for threats,” according to a 2018 article in The New York Times. “The position, with its genial-sounding name, is an unusual hybrid of counselor, educator, and cop, and perhaps no other job better personifies America’s shifting ideas about schools, policing, and safety. Their numbers exploded during the community-oriented policing wave of the 1990s and even more after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. As the memory of that shooting faded and local budgets tightened, their ranks thinned in many places. Now there are calls for installing more of them in schools across the country…”
There has not been an official tally of SROs since 2007, but estimates range between 14,000 and 41,000 nationwide; the National Center for Education Statistics says that about 30 percent of schools had one in 2013, compared to just 1 percent in 1975. (For reference, there are now close to 100,000 public schools in the United States.)
Here in Benzie County, out of nearly 10,000 people who cast ballots in November 2018, 55 percent voted to pass a four-year, 0.18-mill millage to put an SRO in each of its two school systems—one at Benzie County Central Schools and one at Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools, with an estimated $226,526 going toward salary, benefits, equipment, and specialized training.
For FEAS, this was something completely new, so the process took a little longer to implement, with decisions needing to be made, such as: would this officer be employed with the Benzie County Sheriff’s Department or with the Frankfort City Police? Also, a new hire would have to be made.
But at BCCS, there is a long history of SROs, beginning with now-retired Sergeant Beth (Friske) Baesch, who worked at the school five days a week from 2002-2005. At that time, the SRO position was being paid by a federal grant, which now-retired Sheriff Bob Blank had applied for. When Baesch was promoted to Sergeant in 2005, she had to step down as SRO, and that is when now-Undersheriff Kyle Rosa took over, having previously been the DARE officer within the school system for many years (another position which Baesch had pioneered before him). Rosa was the SRO until 2011; when he says that the grant money had worn out, and then-Sheriff Rory Heckman had agreed to foot the bill from the Sheriff’s Department’s budget for a year, if the school would agree to pay for half of the position the following year. When the school did not have the means, the position faded out, until 2016, when Sheriff Ted Schendel prioritized putting an officer in the schools one day a week.
That is when Benzie County Sheriff’s Deputy Geoff Miller, 35, comes into the picture. Miller grew up in the Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools system and graduated in 2002. He then went on to Ferris State University, where he studied public administration and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 2007. After college, he lived for three years in Traverse City, where he worked as a firefighter with the Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department and the Blair Township Fire Department.
At this point, Miller went back to school to attend the Police Academy at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City in 2011. However, struggling to find a job in law enforcement in Northern Michigan, Miller moved to Grosse Point for a year and worked for State Farm Insurance Agency while looking for law enforcement jobs in the Detroit area. Later that year, Miller received a call back from the Benzie County Sheriff’s Department, and he jumped at the opportunity to move back home.
Fast-forward to the 2016-17 school year, when Miller began working one day a week with Benzie County Central Schools as an SRO. During the 2017-18 school year, Miller says that he was not able to be at the school very often. But when the millage passed in November 2018, he was able to jump right in—Miller began working within the school system five days a week in January 2019.
Meanwhile, Frankfort City Police Officer Tiffany Wright, 24, grew up in Traverse City and graduated in 2013 from the Grand Traverse Academy. She then attended Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City, earning her Associate’s degree in Business Administration in 2016. Wright then attended the Police Academy through NMC and graduated in 2018.
At that time, Wright received a seasonal job with the Benzie County Sheriff’s Department on snowmobile patrol for the winter season. She also has experience working with students and schools: she has previously coached junior high and high school volleyball at Grand Traverse Academy, in addition to serving as a referee for middle school and high school volleyball and basketball games around the region from 2013-2016. Additionally, she worked the front desk at all three locations of the Traverse City YMCA from 2015-2019.
There were eight applicants for the SRO at FEAS, all of whom were interviewed by Rob Lozowski, chief of police for the City of Frankfort; Katie Condon, mayor of Frankfort; Jeff Tousley, superintendent of Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools; and Dan Walenta, city councilperson. Wright was hired back in April by the Frankfort Police Department, and her training began on May 6. She was introduced to the Frankfort staff and students at both buildings during the last two weeks of the 2018-2019 school year.
Wright then spent the summer patrolling the road and connecting with the community at the Frankfort parks and beaches. Since school started in September, Wright has been focusing all of her efforts on becoming familiar with the students, plus working on programs and lessons to help educate them. She will attend the Teaching Education and Mentoring (TEAM) School Liaison Program, a four-day workshop, in November.
Wright’s salary will be around $40,000, according to the Benzie County Record Patriot. The millage will pay for her salary, as well as for equipment, including a new patrol car.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Miller and Wright in the after-school hours.
The Betsie Current: When did you first become interested in law enforcement? What interested you about it?
Deputy Geoff Miller: My father and brother were both in law enforcement—my father worked for the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office, and my brother was a military police officer in the Air Force. So, from a young age, I was infatuated with the red and blue lights, the sirens, and the cars. I used to hear stories from them that were just awesome, in my opinion. I always have had a knack for helping people also, so I just knew that was what I was meant to do.
Officer Tiffany Wright: I was always interested in law enforcement as a little girl, but as I got older, I became more aware of how badly I wanted to do it. I like that I can go out every day and make connections with new people in the community and help those who are in need.
Current: What got you interested in working with students and schools?
Miller: Two years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Benzie [County] Central Schools on Wednesdays, if staffing allowed it. It was just fun to me—talking to students about sporting events, dances, classes, just a multitude of activities. Teachers would have me come in and talk about specific topics, teach certain classes on things like drugs, [social media] technology, and traffic laws. When I heard the millage had passed, I was excited for the opportunity to do that every day.
Wright: I always loved working with kids and secretly missed being in high school.
Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you? Is there a busy season for you or is it pretty constant all year long?
Miller: A typical day for me starts at 7 a.m. I arrive at the school before the students and sit in the parking lot for bus drop-off. I ensure that students can cross safely, since most of the time, at that hour, it is still dark outside. Once school begins, I go into my office and log onto all systems and cameras, to ensure that I can see most of the school. While class is in session, I create PowerPoints and prepare for any lessons that I have coming up. While class isn’t in session, I usually walk the hallways and talk with students; I eat lunch with them everyday and am there if they want to talk. I generally will try to visit [each of the three] elementary schools at least once a week. On those days, I like to spend a couple hours at each elementary school, walking the halls and stepping into classrooms to teach and observe. I am an assistant coach for the varsity football and varsity baseball teams at Benzie Central High School, so if it’s a practice day, I leave school around 5:30 p.m. but if it’s a game day, I won’t get home until midnight sometimes.
Wright: Being that I just started, I have a consistent schedule of me going between both schools, talking with teachers and sitting in the classrooms with the students. There could be times that I give a quick presentation on internet safety or bike safety and answer questions that the kids have about police officers.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Miller: I think that the biggest challenge for me, being from Benzie County, is that I know a lot of people. Granted that also is a major advantage to what I do for a living, but when I must enforce the law on someone that I have known maybe for my entire life, it gets tough. Also, with knowing a lot of people in Benzie County being able to help them means a lot more to me. Living in Northern Michigan, we sacrifice a lot of the things that big cities have to offer, such as concerts, shows, sporting events, etc. However, I will take Northern Michigan 10 out of 10 times, if given the choice.
Wright: The biggest challenge would be making the trips through the frigid winters that we have. The most rewarding part is building a relationship with the students and seeing the joy on their faces.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?
Miller: As people not from here start to see the beauty and possibilities that Benzie County has to offer, they naturally will travel and vacation up here. Well, word of mouth starts to spread, and before you know it, we have a small-town feel with a lot of tourism. Economically it is awesome for our area, however, with more people comes potential for more crimes. I think that Benzie County will continue to grow, and the people will continue to vacation here as they have for years and years, and I am excited for the opportunities that come along with that. With the tourism comes the natural progression of gaining more year-round citizens in the area. For those that have school-aged children, they will benefit from having safe and successful educational opportunities.
Wright: I have been learning a lot, being new, and I have a great support system behind me, guiding and giving me advice with everything that I do. I hope to grow the SRO program for Frankfort and have a positive connection with the whole community.
Current: What are some ways that you and/or your department give back to the community?
Miller: The Benzie County Sheriff’s Office gives back to the community in multiple ways. We are involved in Toys for Tots, Benzie Area Youth Initiative, Benzie Kids, and we offer safety classes for snowmobilers, boaters, and ATV riders.
Wright: During different city events, I will go out and do foot patrol, talking with the community and making a positive presence.
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Miller: When I am not working, I love to hunt, fish, golf. I enjoy taking my Jeep on rides, basically anything outdoors. As I mentioned, I currently help with coaching in the spring and fall. I played both baseball and football while at Ferris State University, and I previously coached football at Glen Lake High School and at Traverse City West High School, so I really missed coaching. Until becoming the School Resource Officer, the hours that I worked wouldn’t allow me to coach, so that was one of the first things that I wanted to get back involved with. I just think, for the kids, they don’t see me as just a “Police Officer” but also as a coach and a mentor, which is very important to me.
Wright: I like to spend time with my family and friends in my free time. My sister and I will go for hikes or take small road trips around the surrounding cities. I often volunteer at the Benzie Animal Shelter and at Peninsula Bible Church in Traverse City, which makes meals for the homeless. I have a strong passion for animals and giving back to those in need.
Current: What did you miss most about this area while you are away?
Miller: After the Police Academy, I moved to the Detroit area to look for jobs, due to no law enforcement job openings in basically all of Northern Michigan at that time. While I was gone, I missed everything about ”Up North,” mostly the water, woods, family, and friends. I was so fortunate to get the opportunity at the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office, and I couldn’t pack fast enough.
Current: How have you seen Benzie County/Northern Michigan change since you graduated high school? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Miller: I think the biggest thing that I have noticed that has changed about Benzie County from when I was in school back in 2002 until now is the tourism industry. We have always had tourism, but I don’t remember having the county as a whole benefiting. It isn’t just isolated to the west side of the county, near Frankfort, where the beaches are, or the east side of the county, nearest Traverse City. The entire county is benefiting from the growth of the area as a whole, and it is amazing to be a part of that.
Wright: I have seen the job opportunities rise as time has gone by. There is always a need to support the community and build it up by staying local. I hope that we would be able to keep jobs within the city and help each other grow.
Current: What kind of impact do you think that you have been able to have, as a young person, on the community? We like to use the term “Benzie Boomerangs” to describe young people like yourself who go off to gain a skill set and then bring that back here to share with this place.
Miller: I don’t know if I have made an impact on the community. I just feel so fortunate to be able to serve the people that I grew up around. Being a police officer was always a dream of mine, so being able to do that every day and live in the area where I grew up is a blessing. I have great pride in calling Benzie County home, and all I try to do every day is just pass that pride onto others. And if I have made a positive impact in someone’s life, I hope they will be able to pass that onto others and keep the circle going.
Wright: I think I have been a positive impact on the community, being young, because I am able to relate to the younger generation. Hearing the law and advice come from someone closer to your age comes across different than someone who is a bit older.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people back to this area?
Miller: I have talked to a lot of people about this, and most of the people say the same thing—hard to make money up here and find jobs.
Wright: If Northern Michigan offered an affordable education closer to the area and expanded the cities to offer a variety of activities for all ages.
Current: What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?
Miller: Benzie County needs more things for the youth to do. I remember growing up and having the Beulah Bowling Center, for instance. I think that if someone opens a youth center with indoor basketball courts or arcade-type places, then those kids would be off the streets and the potential for trouble would lower.
Wright: We are in need of a large community outreach center, with different activities for all ages to do together.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Miller: I enjoy Frankfort’s Fall Fest, Lake Ann’s Homecoming, and Crystal Mountain’s Brat Festival. Favorite dining places is tough, because there are so many great places to eat in Benzie County. I love going to the golf courses in the summer and Crystal Mountain in the winter. My favorite hiking spot is a secret, but it’s a few miles long and looks over Lake Michigan.
Wright: Frankfort beach is a great beach to sun bathe, with an amazing sunrise and sunset view.
Current: What does your perfect fall day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Miller: Temperature would be around 60, I would be coaching football at that time, so most likely will be at the football field, but to me, that is a perfect day. I would end my day on my back porch with a cigar, hanging out with my dog and enjoying the crisp, cool air.
Wright: I would go on a hike on the trails with my dog to see the color change in the trees, followed by spending time with either my friends or family.
Want more information? Calls can be directed to the Benzie County Sheriff’s Department, ask for Deputy Geoff Miller; or to the City of Frankfort Police Department, ask for Officer Tiffany Wright. For emergencies, dial 911.
*Editor’s Note: For full disclosure, Aubrey Ann Parker, co-editor of The Betsie Current, serves on the board for Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools. She is also a soccer coach at Benzie County Central Schools.