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The Birds And Bees – And The Law

OSWEGO, NY – The freshman class at Oswego High School was told the choices they make today will impact their lives – forever.

Judge James McCarthy hopes the Oswego County Sex Offense Court School Panel Presentation: “Age Matters” made that point abundantly clear to the young teens who sat through the 90-minute assembly.

Panel members Judge James McCarthy, Assistant District Attorney Greg Oakes, defense attorney Eben Norfleet, and Oswego City Police Officer Sue Coffey listen to questions from the students following the presentation.
Panel members Judge James McCarthy, Assistant District Attorney Greg Oakes, defense attorney Eben Norfleet, and Oswego City Police Officer Sue Coffey listen to questions from the students following the presentation.

The panel members included Judge McCarthy, Undersheriff Robert Lighthall, SAF Victim Service’s Ann Marie Bernard, Assistant District Attorney Greg Oakes, defense attorney Eben Norfleet, Oswego City Police Officer Sue Coffey, and Probation Director Barb Schuler.

ADA Oakes asked the students to picture in their minds what they think rape is.

His request was followed with a great deal of laughter in the audience.

He then asked the students to raise their hands if they had thought rape was somebody who had forced somebody to have sexual intercourse, “a stranger in the park . . . somebody who grabs somebody and forces them. How many thought about that?”

Just about every student raised their hand.

“How many people thought of a boyfriend – girlfriend where the girlfriend says no but the boyfriend keeps going?” he continued.

Not as many hands were raised this time.

The response was near zero when he asked how many had thought about a boy and girl in a long-term, loving relationship that both wanted to have sex, and went ahead and did it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that can be rape,” he proclaimed over the students’ giggles. “If the person is under 17, under New York State law, that can be considered rape. If the person you are involved with is under the age of 17, you could be charged and very well might be charged with a sex offence, either a misdemeanor or a felony.”

Sex offenses also apply to touching, he added.

“I’m not doing this to make you laugh. It may seem funny, but if a boy touches a girl’s chest, and she’s under 17, whether it’s over her clothes or under her clothes, that could be the basis of a sex offense charge,” he informed the students.

“By the time you come to me, it’s too late,” Norfleet told the students.

He pointed out that he had a client – who had sat in one of these sessions. “So, laugh, joke or whatever. But at least get it thorough your heads that this is illegal! And, if you don’t think that it is then I look forward to seeing you in my office being prosecuted. It does happen,” he said.

Don’t think nobody will find out what happened, he warned them.

“Eben said when it gets to him it’s over. Well, when it gets to me it’s definitely over,” Judge McCarthy said. “You’re standing in front of me with your defense attorney, the DA is prosecuting and we’re about to go forward with the criminal justice process.”

Their actions could mean that they have to register as a sex offender, Coffey said.

“A Level 1 sex offender has to register for 20 years and has to report each year where their residence is. If they don’t do that, they can be arrested. A Level II and Level III sex offender is registered for life. Level II has to register each year. Every 90 days a Level III offender has to verify where they live,” she explained.

“So, how many people like to keep their business to themselves? If you’re a registered sex offender, your business is everybody else’s business. It’s out there for the public to know,” she continued. “Nothing is private.”

Their chance of going to college is gone; colleges don’t want sex offenders, the freshmen were told.

“I have had clients who have lost large academic scholarships, sports scholarships because of what they did. Scholarships gone, full scholarships all gone. We want to help you make the right choices and not be labeled as a sex offender,” Norfleet said.

They might also forfeit the right to vote. And, they could be prohibited from owning a pet as pets can be used as lures to attract minors.

For many of the students the image of a sex offender is a much older man who preys on much younger children.

“Well guess what folks? If you’re a registered sex offender, you’re now on the same level as that guy,” Norfleet said. “When you come in to report, he’ll be right beside you.”

As several audience members moaned and groaned and said, “that’s gross,” Officer Coffey pointed out, “Other people will be judging you the same was (as the much older sex offender). There’s no difference to them; you are a sex offender.”

“When you go for any treatment, you will go with all the other sex offenders, not just kids your own age,” Schuler pointed out.

“We’re doing this for your benefit,” the judge said. “I don’t want to see 16 and 17 year old in my courtroom.”

Whether or not a crime has been committed, there are several different services available through SAF, Bernard told the students. Their services are confidential, she added.

The program has received positive feedback, the judge said.

After hearing about the consequences, many of them said, “I don’t want to do it,” Judge McCarthy said of the reactions by students in a different district.

“It made me feel better that I had that kind of feedback,” he said. “I have guys that are on probation that are in high school, I won’t say which one, but they don’t realize … they think since they both consented, so it’s all OK and then they find out that it isn’t.”

Judge McCarthy speaks highly of Oswego High School’s concern for its students and for its continued support of this important outreach to inform teens of the potentially life-changing consequences of sexual behavior in violation of the law, said OHS teacher Paula Ranous.

“Many students are unaware of the life-changing consequences for their choices, consequences that can determine their future employment, residency, and interactions with family and friends for the rest of their lives,” she said.

All panel members come any day, and at any start time a school district wants to schedule a program, she said.

Judge McCarthy is trying to get similar panel presentations in all Oswego County schools.

For information about scheduling a program, contact Judge McCarthy’s office at the Oswego County Courthouse on East Oneida Street at 349-3286.