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What Happened At This Educator's Sentencing Is Still Raising Questions A Year Later


A high school counselor in New Hampshire pleaded guilty last year to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. What happened at her sentencing is still raising questions now about how child safety and free speech intersect. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Last July's sentencing hearing for Kristie Torbick lasted about two hours.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: How do you plead - guilty or not guilty?


BOOKMAN: Guilty to four counts of felonious sexual assault. Prosecutors said Torbick took advantage of the inherent power difference. They asked for five to 10 years in prison. Then it was the defense's turn. Torbick's attorney submitted two dozen letters of support - heartfelt letters about her volunteer work, her spotless credentials, neighbors who wrote about what a great mom she is.

And 25 people came to the sentencing to show their support. Former colleague Shelley Philbrick was among those who addressed the judge.


SHELLEY PHILBRICK: In all the years that I've known Kristie, both professionally and personally, she has always presented as a person who was engaged in helping to make the lives of others better.

BOOKMAN: Than the therapist who had been working with Torbick testified, Dr. Nancy Strapko.


NANCY STRAPKO: 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's deserving.

BOOKMAN: And on it went. Torbick, who had worked in multiple school districts in New Hampshire in recent years, 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. Pretty quickly, letters to the editor 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.

STRAPKO: I guess I was a little - I don't know if naive is the word, but I didn't think that it would ever get to the level that it got to. But I did start hearing the rumblings, and then it was just big.

BOOKMAN: Parents like Tracy Richmond of Bedford flooded into local school board meetings to complain about school employees participating in the hearing.


TRACY RICHMOND: Let's stand with our children and not a child molester. You cannot do both.

BOOKMAN: It even reached the floor of the New Hampshire House. Representative Ralph Boehm.


RALPH BOEHM: They testified on behalf of the convict, stating that the person was of good character. Wow.

BOOKMAN: The fallout was widespread. A school superintendent was forced to resign, and two guidance counselors from two different schools who spoke favorably of Torbick lost their jobs. Plymouth State University disciplined three of its professors for participating, including the therapist Nancy Strapko. The school terminated her part-time teaching contract.

Those actions, that accountability, was welcomed by Lyn Schollett. She's executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which works with survivors.

LYN SCHOLLETT: We tell children that when something bad happens to them, they should find a trusted adult - a teacher, a parent, a guidance counselor. And when they know that those adults can no longer be trusted, those children will no longer come forward.

BOOKMAN: But the backlash has left Kristie Torbick's defense lawyer, Mark Sisti, shaking his head. He says the witnesses weren't defending Torbick's crime. They were speaking to her character.

I realize you don't agree with them, but do you understand why parents in these school districts reacted the way they did?

MARK SISTI: Absolutely not. It's an overreaction. It's hyped up, and it is just plain wrong.

BOOKMAN: 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 Nancy Strapko for wrongful termination. She got $350,000. One of the fired guidance counselors is suing her former school district in federal court. That case is still playing out.

Torbick's own case, though, 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.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, N.H.


Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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