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Support for ex-counselor convicted of child rape shakes judicial system to its core

  • Alexandria police Chief Donald Sullivan (center) speaks to advocates following a community and parent forum he organized on sexual violence resources at a town office building in Alexandria on Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Alexandria Police Chief Donald Sullivan speaks during a community and parent forum he organized on sexual violence resources at a town office building in Alexandria on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ—Monitor staff

  • Voices Against Violence executive director Meg Kennedy Dugan (left) and former Alexandria police chief Harold “Skip” Reilly talk to one another following a community and parent forum on sexual violence resources at town hall in Alexandria on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ—Monitor staff

  • Voices Against Violence executive director Meg Kennedy Dugan speaks during a community and parent forum on sexual violence resources at town hall in Alexandria on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ—Monitor staff

  • Alexandria Police Chief Donald Sullivan yells out of a window to let people know of the location change for a community and parent forum he organized on sexual violence resources at a town office building in Alexandria on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ—Monitor staff

  • Alexandria police Chief Donald Sullivan speaks during a community and parent forum he organized on sexual violence resources at a town office building in Alexandria on Thursday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Sunday, August 12, 2018

In his 20 years as a law enforcement officer, Alexandria police Chief Donald Sullivan said he had never been so saddened and angered by the judicial process than on July 9. That day, nearly two dozen educators, school counselors and psychologists stood up for a child sex offender with the teenage victim seated feet away in a Rockingham County courtroom.

The sentencing of former school counselor Kristie Torbick made Sullivan furious as he thought about the sexual assault victims who might be silenced in the aftermath of the courtroom display.

“As professionals, we should be tearing down barriers, not putting them up,” Sullivan told the Monitor. “I’m now trying to combat the message victims are receiving. They need to know we are here, resources are available to you and we support you.”

Sullivan said he couldn’t stand by and do nothing on the heels of Torbick’s sentencing last month. Instead, he reached out to his community’s local crisis center, Voices Against Violence, and Danbury police to organize a community discussion about victim support services and ongoing prevention education work in local schools, which are part of the Newfound School District that previously employed Torbick.

His goal for Thursday night’s forum: “to restore faith in the system.”

In Concord, Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, couldn’t stay silent any longer for a different reason.

He questioned in a statement Friday the vilification of Torbick’s colleagues who spoke on her behalf, citing free speech protections under the First Amendment and in state law.

Character witnesses in the sentencing phase of a criminal trial are an important factor for a judge imposing a sentence. Seeing Torbick’s friends and former co-workers lose their jobs from Plymouth State University and Newfound Regional High School could undermine that phase of the justice process, he argued.

“Our justice system depends on such individuals feeling free to testify in court, including on behalf of individuals who have been accused or convicted of crimes,” Bissonnette said. “The chilling effect potentially created by these institutions’ decisions is deeply damaging to the fair administration of justice.”

Speaking out

For the advocates, parents, retired law enforcement and others who attended Thursday’s forum in Alexandria, their thoughts kept returning to Torbick. Many were still grappling with how someone entrusted with the care of students at Exeter High School could sexually assault a 14-year-old student on multiple occasions and yet receive glowing character statements following her conviction.

“I’ve seen so much of it,” former Alexandria police chief Harold “Skip” Reilly said of child sexual abuse. “It’s something a lot of people have to open their eyes up to. The thought is if you don’t see it, it’s not happening. It’s just not true.”

Reilly was among victim advocates, parents, two police chiefs and a retired judge at the Alexandria Town Hall, the site of Thursday’s forum. The gathering was the second of its kind to be held in the state since Aug. 1. On that night, the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Manchester YWCA held a similar event.

Even though weeks have passed since Torbick was sentenced to 2½ to five years in prison, her name still captures local and national headlines as her supporters resign under public pressure and are ousted by the educational institutions that once employed them.

The continued fallout has raised questions about how a community recovers when someone whose duty is to protect people – in this case, children – becomes a threat and turns the system on its head. And it’s raised questions about the effectiveness of a criminal justice system if character witnesses fear speaking out.

The case

The case against Torbick quickly drew decisive responses from people both in closed professional circles and in the broader community. Parents flocked to school board meetings in Bedford demanding answers and a change in leadership.

The firestorm began on July 9 when Torbick, 39, of Lee pleaded guilty in Rockingham County Superior Court to four counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. Judge Andrew Schulman sentenced her to 2½ to five years in prison. She also received a suspended 3½ to seven-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors had asked for a five- to 10-year prison sentence – still far less than the decades she could have faced behind bars if convicted by a jury.

During the hearing, Assistant County Attorney Melissa Fales described separate occasions between December 2016 and January 2017 in which Torbick sexually assaulted the student, including in her home where she “hatched” a plan for the victim to babysit her children, the Union Leader reported. Fales said Torbick sent partially nude photos of herself to the student victim and they exchanged 23,000 text messages.

Twenty-three of Torbick’s colleagues and acquaintances wrote letters to the court with many of them asking the judge for leniency on her behalf. The victim, who was seated in the courtroom, was brought to tears by their words and at one point had to leave the courtroom, Sullivan said.

Support for the student on social media was instant as victim advocates called Torbick’s supporters out by name and demanded accountability. With public pressure mounting, the Bedford school superintendent and school counselor from Newfound Regional High School resigned, and Plymouth State University announced it would not rehire an adjunct teaching lecturer who had called the victim a “pursuer.”

Bedford School District Superintendent Chip McGee was the first to step down on July 27 following outcry over his decision to allow Bedford High School Dean of Students Zanna Blaney to provide Torbick with a character statement. Torbick previously worked as a school counselor in Bedford before taking the job in Exeter.

“It would be difficult for me to continue to lead the Bedford School District at this point because of circumstances beyond my control,” McGee wrote in a statement on the school district’s website. “I do not want to become a distraction from the continued good work happening at Bedford.”

Plymouth State University announced days later that it had taken action against faculty members who had expressed their support for Torbick. President Donald Birx and Provost Robin Dorff said Aug. 1 that Nancy Strapko would not be rehired as an adjunct teaching lecturer or employed in any other capacity at the university, and that counselor education professors Michael Fischler and Gary Goodnough would be required to complete additional Title IX training before returning to the classroom.

The most recent resignation came Tuesday from Shelly Philbrick, a school counselor who once worked with Torbick in the Newfound Regional School District.

As the case draws responses from all over New Hampshire, a state board whose profession has been negatively cast into the spotlight is also weighing next steps. The New Hampshire Counselor Association met on Aug. 6 and discussed the Torbick case. Association President Jonathan Cheney said in an email to the Monitor that the board will be making a statement in the next few weeks, although he did not elaborate further.

The fallout

In the case’s aftermath, questions continue to surface about when it’s okay for people in trusted positions to speak on behalf of the convicted, what information it’s appropriate for them to share, and what ethical guidelines they should follow.

Plymouth State said it was not aware of the letters submitted by faculty at the sentencing stage and noted that none of the letters were written on university letterhead. However, the faculty who spoke in support of Torbick did so by identifying themselves with their university credentials.

Scott Hampton, whose organization, Ending The Violence, works with perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence said in an interview last week that he was “significantly disappointed” after reading excerpts from Strapko’s letter, which includes details of her therapy sessions with Torbick. In her letter, she wrote that Torbick wasn’t a “predator.”

“Kristie takes full responsibility for her actions with her ‘victim,’ ” wrote Strapko, a clinical psychologist. “I put this in parentheses because I am aware that her ‘victim’ was truly the pursuer in this case.”

Plymouth State leaders responded by calling Strapko’s comments “legally wrong and morally reprehensible.”

Hampton said Strapko’s comments show a complete misunderstanding for the sexual victimization process and the tactics perpetrators of those crimes use to identify, lure and abuse their victims – all while trying to escape responsibility for it.

“When I hear someone say ‘it was really the victim who was the pursuer,” that’s a profound misunderstanding of the grooming process,” Hampton said. “Sex offenders will spend a tremendous amount of time setting up the sexual assault, and the assault is usually only a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall interaction.”

In Strapko’s five-paragraph letter, she devotes several sentences to telling the court about the challenges Torbick faced as a child. She wrote that Torbick survived cancer, sexual abuse and “horrific neglect from her mother,” who suffered from substance abuse.

While not wanting to discount or minimize that trauma, Hampton said Torbick’s childhood experiences don’t excuse her actions as an adult. He said there is an implication that if we ask someone why they did something, eventually they’ll provide us with some reasonable answer. But the problem is in the question, because there is no “good reason” for sexual abuse, he said.

“The purpose of the sex offender treatment program isn’t to come up with 37 reasons why,” he said. “I want them to tell me in no uncertain terms that this is why my behavior is unacceptable.”

During the criminal process, it is common for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to ask family members, colleagues, clinical psychologists and/or treatment providers to speak at sentencing. Hampton said the Torbick case is an example of why professional communities need to develop more explicit ethical guidelines for how to respond to and follow through on those requests.

Goodnough, who previously served as Torbick’s advisor and internship supervisor, was also among the Plymouth State faculty members reprimanded by the university in recent weeks. He told the court he once considered Torbick to be “among the top high school counselors in the state” and that “no benefit to society would be served by incarcerating her.”

Regardless of the content of their comments, these employees have a right to say what they believe in court, the ACLU said in a statement Friday.

While the ACLU said it denounces sexual assault of any kind, its leaders also argued that silencing character witnesses is wrong and illegal.

“The public is not served, however, by silencing the free speech of citizens speaking in their private capacity,” said ACLU of New Hampshire Executive Director Devon Chaffee said. “As a society, we can and must support victims of sexual assault and steadfastly uphold the rights of citizens to participate in the criminal justice process.”

Moreover, state law specifically protects this kind of speech from public employees, Bissonnette said. State law mandates that “a person employed as a public employee in any capacity shall have a full right to publicly discuss and give opinions as an individual on all matters concerning any government entity and its policies.”

Bissonnette said the law is intended to protect employees – like Strapko and Philbrick – out of a fear that public employers may terminate employees for unpopular speech done in an individual capacity.

“The actions of Plymouth State University and Newfound Regional High School are additionally concerning because they may deter public employees from, in their individual capacities, giving testimony in criminal court proceedings,” Bissonnette said.

The future

Parents of Newfound School District students were more at ease Thursday night knowing the school counselor who had spoken on Torbick’s behalf would not be returning to her job this school year.

Chief Sullivan had encouraged other parents to take his lead and write to District Superintendent Stacy Buckley about Philbrick, not knowing of her plans to resign. Sullivan said his daughter will be a freshman this year and he did not want her to have any communication with a school counselor who’d backed Torbick.

“A guidance counselor is someone that students should trust,” he told the Monitor. “How can you trust someone that they’re going to have high ethical standards when they’re talking about how great a child rapist is? It’s appalling.”

Sullivan said to the dozen or so forum attendees Thursday that he hopes the public outrage following Torbick’s sentencing continues to spur important conversations throughout the state about sexual violence, which remains one of the most underreported crimes. He said the beliefs shared by Torbick’s supporters are not widespread and that they will be overcome by a greater message.

A student-led campaign in the Bedford School District is already turning the conversation in a more positive direction. Amid growing outrage, students drafted more than 60 letters to the Exeter High School victim – that’s three times the number of statements received by Torbick and counting.

The younger generation’s display of support to one victim should be emulated across the state to all victims, the Alexandria and Danbury police chiefs said. They added that it is especially important to reach those who may feel silenced and with nowhere safe to turn.

“We support people in this community and we are here for people in this community,” Danbury Police Chief David Suckling said. “It’s important for us to tell you, members of the community, put your hand up and we’ll be right there – we promise.”