BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse sheriff's deputies may again have a regular presence in county schools, but they won't be around as often as they were before.
Sheriff Tom Bensley plans to put two deputies on school patrol duty. Details have yet to be ironed out, but the general plan is to have each deputy be responsible for a group of private, public and charter schools, likely in a defined area of the county.
Until 2010 the sheriff's department had four regular school liaison officers, one each stationed at West Middle School, West Senior High School, Kingsley High School and East Middle School. The program was disbanded when schools cut their portion of funding — they paid half of officers' salaries during the school year — and Bensley said his new program won't have the same impact as the old one.
"This is not your father's Buick," he said. "Two people cannot do what four used to."
Still, some regular school presence is better than none, Bensley said. Deputies can ward off problems before they get out of hand, he said. They also serve as both a positive influence and a deterrent to crime.
"It's good for us to have connections with people of that age group," he said.
Bensley said he analyzed his department's workload and determined two officers could be put on school duty with little or no impact to services elsewhere. His department won't ask for money from schools for the two-man plan, but likely would ask for funding support if more are added.
Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Cousins said he's glad to hear about Bensley's plan.
"I think that any time we can strengthen the relationship between students and law enforcement officers, that's a good thing," he said.
Cousins said it's "perfectly reasonable" to expect the school district to pay some portion of the cost if a full liaison program is resurrected. It's hard saying if the money will be available.
"I think there's a real value in school liaison officers," he said. "In terms of the cost, it's something we'd have to talk about. We certainly want to be part of the conversation."
The Traverse City Police Department still has a school liaison officer program. The department decided to fund that officer entirely after school funding stopped. The officer has an office at Central High School.