It’s been a year since a high school guidance counselor working in the Exeter school district was sentenced to prison. Kristie Torbick, 39, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year old student.
But what happened in the courtroom the day of her sentencing continues to raise questions about child safety, and free speech protections, in New Hampshire.
Last July’s sentencing hearing for Torbick lasted about two hours. The Lee resident pleaded guilty to four counts of felonious sexual assault. Rockingham County prosecutors said Torbick groomed the young defendant, a student who had turned to her for counseling. They asked for 5-10 years in prison.
When it was the defense’s turn, Torbick’s attorney Mark Sisti submitted two-dozen letters of support. The letters touched on Torbick’s years of volunteer work at a camp for children with cancer, and her spotless employment credentials. Neighbors wrote about what a great mom she is. And in the courtroom, twenty-five people were present to show their support for Torbick. Some of them addressed the judge.
“In all the years I’ve known Kristie, both professionally and personally, she has always presented as a person who is engaged in helping to make the lives of others better,” Shelly Philbrick, a former colleague of Torbick’s, told the judge.
“I pray the court show justice for the victim, but also leniency upon Kristie today.”
Then the therapist who had been treating Torbick testified.
“I don’t think I’ve ever, ever actually uttered the words: I seek mercy for this client. I do today. That’s how sure I am that she is deserving,” said Dr. Nancy Strapko.
Torbick had worked in multiple school districts in New Hampshire in recent years, and her network of friends and former colleagues told the judge she’s not a predator. She just made a poor decision.
Local media covered the sentencing hearing, and soon letters to the editor and social media posts started appearing asking how could these people, many of them public school employees, defend a child sex offender. The therapist who testified, Nancy Strapko, thought it would blow over.
“I guess I was a little, I don’t know if naive was the word, but I didn’t think it would ever get to the level that it got to,” says Strapko, who specializes in treating sex offenders out of her practice in Plymouth. “But I did start hearing the rumblings. Then it was just big.”
Parents flooded into local school board meetings to complain about school employees participating in the hearing.
“Let’s stand with our children and not a child molester. You cannot do both,” Tracy Richmond, a parent, told the Bedford School Board.
It even reached the floor of the New Hampshire House. Lawmakers attempted but ultimately failed to pass a bill that would have prohibited public school employees from testifying on behalf of sex offenders.
“They testified on behalf of the convict, stating that the person was of good character,” Rep. Ralph Boehm told colleagues. “Wow.”
The fallout was widespread. Bedford’s superintendent was forced to resign, and two guidance counselors who spoke favorably of Torbick--one from Bedford High School, and Philbrick, from Newfound Regional High School--lost their jobs. Plymouth State University disciplined three of its professors for participating, including the therapist, Nancy Strapko. The school terminated her adjuncting contract.
That accountability was welcomed by Lyn Schollet, executive director of the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which works with survivors.
“We tell children that when something bad happens to them, they should find a trusted adult. A teacher, a parent, a guidance counselor,” says Schollet. “And when they know that those adults can no longer be trusted, those children will no longer come forward.”
But the backlash has left many people, including Torbick’s defense lawyer, Mark Sisti, shaking their heads. Sisti says the witnesses weren’t defending Torbick’s crime. Rather, they were speaking to her accomplishments and actions before the crime.
“It is an overreaction. It is hyped up, and it is just plain wrong,” says Sisti of the public response to the hearing.
Perhaps also legally wrong. Sisti, along with free speech advocacy groups, believe the letters and testimony provided in court that day are protected under the First Amendment. Plymouth State University settled out of court with Strapko for wrongful termination, awarding her $350,000. One of the fired educators from Bedford, Zanna Blaney, is suing her former school district in federal court. That case is still playing out.
Torbick’ own case, however, is settled. Last July, a superior court judge sentenced her to two-and-a-half years in prison, and she’ll have to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life. Prosecutors called it light. Some of her supporters were hoping for no jail time at all.