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Dismissed lecturer seeks compensation from Plymouth State after Torbick case

  • Plymouth State University Courtesy—

Monitor staff
Published: 11/9/2018 5:15:54 PM

An adjunct teaching lecturer who lost her job at Plymouth State University because she publicly supported a guidance counselor convicted of sexually assaulting a student has brought several legal claims against the institution.

Nancy Strapko, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with a practice in Plymouth, is attempting to resolve her claims against the university out of court but will file a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Concord should negotiations fail, her attorney Megan Douglass told the Monitor.

“It would appear that Plymouth State University, despite Dr. Strapko's First Amendment rights and due process rights as a public employee, disregarded those rights and immediately terminated Dr. Strapko in a very humiliating way, causing great harm to her, her business, her well-being and her reputation in New Hampshire,” Douglass said.

Plymouth State announced Aug. 1 that it would not rehire Strapko as a teaching lecturer after she called a 14-year-old sexual assault victim a “pursuer” in a letter submitted to Rockingham County Superior Court as part of Kristie Torbick’s sentencing.

In her letter, Strapko wrote, “Kristie takes full responsibility for her actions with her ‘victim.’ I put this in parentheses because I am aware that her ‘victim’ was truly the pursuer in this case. This in no way excuses Kristie’s subsequent response to his aggression as she is the adult in this relationship. In her therapy, she has been able to identify the developmental gaps in her childhood that may have played a part in her inappropriate behavior.”

Torbick, 39, of Lee, a former Exeter High School guidance counselor, was sentenced to 2½ to five years in state prison for sexually assaulting a student she was counseling. Torbick, who pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, received support from nearly two dozen colleagues and acquaintances who wrote letters on her behalf, many of them asking the judge for leniency. The show of support ignited a firestorm on social media where advocacy groups rallied support for the victim and parents demanded accountability by school administrators whose employees had provided character statements on Torbick’s behalf.

University president Donald Birx and provost Robin Dorff said in a statement disseminated to media outlets Aug. 1 that Strapko’s portrayal of the victim as the “pursuer” is “legally wrong and morally reprehensible.”

Douglass said Thursday that Strapko had emailed Torbick’s attorney, Mark Sisti, a summary of the results of the psychosexual evaluation she performed on Torbick, not knowing that Sisti would forward her letter on to the court as part of sentencing hearing in July.

By phone Friday, Plymouth State communications director Marlin Collingwood declined to discuss the pending legal claims brought against the institution by Strapko.

“We don’t comment on any pending legal matters,” he said.

This summer, university administrators also took action against two other professors – Garry Goodnough and Michael Fischler – who wrote letters in support of Torbick by requiring them to complete additional training on sexual assault before returning to teach.

Manchester-based attorney Jon Meyer, who is representing Fischler, said he has spoken to “multiple people who have been impacted” in various professions and knows some have sought legal advice. Meyer said he initially became involved in the issue as a First Amendment advocate and is greatly concerned about individuals’ willingness to testify at sentencing hearings without fear of retribution or punishment.

“I don’t think this is the first time people have been criticized for giving testimony on behalf of a defendant, but I don’t know another situation where there has been so much of a social media response,” Meyer said. “There is a false perception that if you support someone who did something bad then you must support the bad thing.”

The case against Torbick quickly drew decisive responses from people in closed professional circles and in the broader community. Bedford School District Superintendent Chip McGee was the first to resign in response to public outcry over his decision to allow Dean of Students Zanna Blaney to provide a character statement. Torbick had worked as a school counselor in Bedford prior to taking the job in Exeter.

Late last month, attorneys Douglass and Meyer attended a meeting of the New Hampshire Judicial Council to share their concerns about what had unfolded in the aftermath of Torbick’s sentencing. The 24-member council, which includes judges, a designee of the attorney general’s office, court clerks and lawmakers, takes up judicial administration issues that affect the day-to-day operations of the court.

“Our concern, simply stated, is that it’s really important that judges have truthful information in deciding what punishment to issue to criminal defendants, and if witnesses are intimidated from giving truthful information to the court – which is intended to be used to determine how long to take away someone’s liberty – that’s a real problem,” Douglass said.

Meyer told members of the council that although many people raised their voices in the wake of the controversy surrounding Torbick’s sentencing, one voice has remained noticeably silent: the judicial branch. He asked at the Oct. 29 meeting whether legislation aimed at protecting people against adverse employment actions may be appropriate.

But judges and others said they had a hard time understanding what they could do especially given the particular nuances of a case that unfolded unlike any other in their recent memory.

“I think it’s really dangerous to legislate by anecdote,” said Tina Nadeau, New Hampshire superior court chief justice. “You’re talking about nuances and opinions and perceptions and statements, and that’s the messiness of the courtroom – and that’s what it’s supposed to be. I think people have to be responsible readers of the news. I think we’re going down a really dangerous road to legislate what’s said in a courtroom.”

Superior Court Clerk Karen Gorham echoed that sentiment, saying “the idea of a legislative fix or of the court taking some kind of action is extremely concerning.”

In a follow-up interview, Douglass said she understands and respects that the court has to remain unbiased. However, she said, her hope is that the court would issue a statement “endorsing the very neutral idea that it’s very important for us to have truthful testimony in court even if the testimony is controversial.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire also previously come out to oppose the vilification of Torbick’s colleagues, citing free speech protections under the First Amendment and in state law. Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU, said administrative actions taken by institutions against employees who spoke out could have a “chilling effect” and damage the fair administration of justice.

Conversely, victims advocates and law enforcement officials said the statements of support for Torbick frightened sexual assault victims who already face significant barriers in coming forward.

Meyer said the meeting with the Judicial Council was just the start of conversations that are necessary to increase the public’s consciousness on the issues.

“I didn’t come to them and say this is how you solve it. I’m not sure that there is a solution,” he said. “My expectation is that there is a good likelihood that some of the people affected will bring cases, and that may bring further progress.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)



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