We Can Do More to Educate About Sexual Conduct and Consent

Recently a case in a neighboring county where I was appointed special prosecutor was in the news and I was criticized by some who received their information from the internet and and social media. The young woman who was assaulted and her family stopped in just yesterday to again thank me and my office for all we did in the case to support her.

But I understand the criticism. We have a culture that is too accepting of sexual assault and shows a “boys will be boys” attitude. That’s not what I believe happened in my case nor does the victim, but I’m glad that people are at least paying attention.

In the three and a half years that I have been prosecutor, we’ve talked to over 700 students in the county about sexual assault and consent. Through a grant obtained by our victim advocate, Libby Mikulski, we purchased the rights to the acclaimed film The Hunting Ground and hosted a free community screening.

Next year we hope to have all high schools in Charlevoix County show the high school version of The Hunting Ground not just so our students can be educated about sexual assault, but so that we can get them talking about it – and how to stop it.

The Petoskey News-Review published an editorial that points out that I did not seek the maximum penalty for the young man in the case described above. As I told the PNR, that is fair for people to question. I know all the facts of the case and the victim, her family and I am content with what happened. Not happy – there is nothing we can do to take away what happened to her.

Most of all, I’m happy that the PNR is talking about the problem of sexual assault and if I have to take a few lumps to make that happen, so be it.

The editorial is printed below, copied from http://www.petoskeynews.com/news/opinion/our-view-we-can-do-more-to-educate-about-sexual/article_2ffc54ff-8e11-5492-8942-86b540e0c7bc.html.

Many of us will agree — sexual assault is one of society’s worst crimes.

So awful is it, maybe we don’t talk about it enough.

The nation was reminded of this in early June when former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, 20, was sentenced by a California judge to spend six months in county jail, serve three years of probation and register as a sex offender after a jury in March found him guilty of three felony sexual assault-related charges.

Turner was convicted of the crimes for sexually assaulting a 23-year-old woman who was visiting the school’s campus and had been drinking at a fraternity party there. Witnesses told authorities they saw Turner on top of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and intervened.

The backlash spread far and wide, much of it focused on the judge who was criticized for not imposing a more severe sentence that included a state prison term.

Two weeks later, an eerily similar case was prosecuted in Northern Michigan’s Otsego County where another 20-year-old and former high school athletic star Bradley Kussrow, now a Petoskey resident, had been accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old girl at a party earlier this year. Because Kussrow’s father is a retired Gaylord City Police detective, the state attorney general’s office was asked to appoint a special prosecutor to the case, which became Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney Allen Telgenhof’s role.

Much like the California judge, Telgenhof was presented with an opportunity to make an example of a young man who was accused of victimizing an intoxicated young woman.

Telgenhof, like the judge, chose not to push for the heaviest penalties, which in the Otsego County case would have included a lifetime requirement that Kussrow register as a sex offender. Instead, Kussrow entered into a plea agreement offered by prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of felony unlawful imprisonment and was ordered to spend six months in county jail, serve three years probation and not to contact the victim personally, on social media, or through a third party.

The prosecutor has taken plenty of criticism in online postings and comments regarding the story, which was covered by the News-Review last month. In a recent interview, Telgenhof said he doesn’t expect everyone to agree and understands the point of view of those who are critical of his decision.

Telgenhof said he was initially against offering any plea deal that didn’t require Kussrow to register as a sex offender, but eventually backed off that stance as the victim and her family made it clear they didn’t want to relive the experience during court proceedings.

We don’t intend to defend Telgenhof’s choice and we understand the arguments made by his critics, but consider what he says next as action we all can take to prevent more attacks of this type from occurring.

“We have a lot of boys and girls out there who don’t really know what consent is,” Telgenhof said. “I think it’s a huge issue and we need to talk about it.”

Telgenhof notes that there are sexual predators and violent criminals and then there are people who make terrible decisions that victimize others. In Kussrow’s case, he was determined by experts to present a low risk for committing such an offense again in the future. Telgenhof said that factored into his decision when the plea deal was offered.

We’re not here to say whether either of the perpetrators in the aforementioned cases fall specifically into one of those categories, but rather that maybe more can be done to prevent the latter from happening before it does.

Telgenhof, who is also a former baseball coach at Charlevoix High School, says he routinely looks for opportunities to talk with young people about proper sexual conduct and what consent is. Do teens and young adults know? It might be clear to you, but maybe not to others, Telgenhof said. And how can we expect them to know just how devastating their actions can be without educating them?

“It’s not going until she says stop,” the prosecutor said. “If there’s that perception out there that we can get girls drunk and do what we want…”

Maybe Telgenhof is right and a good chunk of the responsibility falls on us (parents, educators, police, other community leaders) to better educate children and young adults.

Last year, Telgenhof said he contacted administrators at each of Charlevoix County’s high schools proposing to meet with students on sexual conduct issues. As part of that, he hoped to show a version of “The Hunting Ground,” a 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, that is geared specifically to a high school audience. Telgenhof said there was some interest, but none of the schools went so far as to schedule him in.

“I’m frustrated,” he said.

In a time where young people are in constant contact and communication over the internet and social media, the stakes have never been higher. With this in mind, are there ways we can promote more awareness and openness on the topic of sexual conduct, consent and sexual assault?

If these cases are any evidence, it seems so.

‘Our View’ represents the opinion of the News-Review editorial board: Ryan Bentley, Doug Caldwell, Jeremy McBain, Jordan Spence, Steve Zucker and Craig Currier.


About Allen Telgenhof

Allen Telgenhof is the Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney; beginning his 14th year of coaching high school baseball, now as varsity coach at Boyne Falls Public Schools. Graduated from Clio High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Father of four great children, ages 27, 25, 20 and 19.
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