Former Bedford Superintendent of Schools Chip McGee resigned Friday, weeks after he authorized a high school staffer to testify on behalf of Kristie Torbick, a former Bedford guidance counselor who plead guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old child.
For many parents in the district, McGee's resignation is only a first step in resolving the issue.
Dean of Students Zanna Blaney and two guidance counselors, Alison Mattson and Christine Mulcahey, attended Torbick's sentencing hearing and submitted character witness statements on her behalf.
Debbie and Tedd Ellis's eldest daughter is assigned Mattson as a guidance counselor. They say they've had good experiences with Mattson, who was a huge help when their daughter, a junior, was sick.
"We spent a lot of time with her this year. She was very helpful and supportive. But we're not sure what to do at this point," Debbie says. "We've talked to my daughter. She's aware of it. But she's lost trust."
They say their daughter doesn't understand why her counselor would vouch for the character of someone convicted of sexually abusing a child. But she's sure she won't look to that counselor for help anymore.
"It wasn't like, 'you know, let me think about it.'" Tedd says. "It was like, 'I'm not going to go to her. Where do I go?'"
The Ellises aren't the only family feeling shaken by what's happened. Blaney, Mattson and Mulcahey haven't publicly explained why they made character witness statements on Torbick's behalf. Many district parents are calling for their resignations.
Newly appointed Interim Superintendent Mike Fournier says he's taking parents' concerns seriously, but the district also has to make sure it is following the law and being fair to the school employees involved.
"We need to follow due process, make sure we've received proper counsel, and do this well," Fournier says.
Albert Scherr, a professor of criminal law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, says the district would be smart to seek legal counsel before making any personnel decisions.
Scherr spends four days of his course on evidence teaching law students about character testimony. He believes a lot of the controversy in Bedford stems from misunderstanding of a character witness's role.
"It's not an endorsement of her conduct in this case by any stretch," Scherr says. "It's, 'Judge, we know you have a hard decision. Please appreciate who this whole person is.'"
Blaney read a character statement at the sentencing hearing that included excerpts from official performance reviews she'd written during Torbick's employment in Bedford. She had explicit permission from former Superintendent McGee to testify. Mattson and Mulcahey attended the hearing and submitted letters without consulting the district.
Scherr believes that Torbick's performance reviews might have been subpoenaed if the district hadn't sent Blaney to read them. So, part of Blaney's testimony may have been inevitable. And unless the employees' contracts barred them from giving this kind of testimony, Scherr says retaliating by terminating them would expose the Bedford school district to a lawsuit.
"To fire them just for doing this, [the district] would lose any lawsuit fired by the fired individual, I would predict," Scherr says. "Because it would clearly be a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech."
Many parents in the district say they understand these legal arguments and the risk of a lawsuit. But that none of that changes the fact that their kids aren't comfortable being around three school employees.
Dan Genese has already let interim superintendent Fournier know that his son, a senior, is not to have any contact with the employees in question.
"I don't understand why they would stand in court for the victimizer and not for the victim. The harm they've presented to their office and this community is undoable," Genese said.
And for him, it's not just about what these staffers said at Torbick's defense hearing. He believes that Blaney, Mattson, Mulcahey and the district have been dishonest about how they came to be character witnesses for Torbick and why.
"There's been trust that's been violated," Genese says. "And for that reason alone I say roll the dice and fire them and let them bring their lawsuit."
School starts in Bedford in less than a month. The Bedford School Board is holding a listening session at 6 p.m. tonight, open to all district parents.