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PSU takes action on faculty who supported counselor in sex assault case

Union Leader Correspondent

August 02. 2018 10:04PM
Dr. Nancy Strapko, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and an associate professor emeritus and former graduate school health education coordinator at Plymouth State University, testified as a character witness at Kristie Torbick's sentencing on July 9. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

PLYMOUTH — Plymouth State University has taken action after faculty members expressed support for former Exeter High School guidance counselor Kristie Torbick, who admitted she sexually assaulted a 14-year-old student.

PSU President Donald Birx and Provost Robin Dorff announced Wednesday that Dr. Nancy Strapko, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, will not be rehired as an adjunct teaching lecturer or employed in any other capacity at the university.

Strapko, an associate professor emeritus and former graduate school health education coordinator at PSU, was one of 23 people who wrote letters supporting Torbick. She also testified at Torbick’s sentencing July 9, asking for leniency after Torbick pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual assault in Rockingham County Superior Court.

In her letter, Strapko wrote, in part, “Kristie takes full responsibility for her actions with her ‘victim.’ I put this in (quotes) because I am aware that her ‘victim’ was truly the pursuer in this case.”

“In PSU’s opinion, portraying a 14-year-old sexual assault victim as a ‘pursuer’ is legally wrong and morally reprehensible,” PSU said in a statement.

Letters of support also were written by Michael L. Fischler, professor emeritus of counselor education and school psychology at PSU, and Gary Goodnough, a PSU professor of counselor education who served as Torbick’s adviser and internship supervisor.

The university said that before they return to teach, Fischler and Goodnough have agreed to complete additional Title IX training and to work closely with PSU faculty, students and staff to address the issues and the concerns created by their letters.

“Plymouth State University will create opportunities in the days, weeks, and months ahead to provide each campus community member an opportunity to share his or her voice through programs, forums, and surveys to assess our campus climate. As we make improvements to our ongoing training and development for faculty, staff, and students so that we may all better understand sexual violence and its impact on individuals within our campus community, we will rely on our existing partnership with Voices Against Violence,” the university said.

Birx and Dorff also reiterated “PSU’s condemnation of Ms. Torbick’s criminal actions and their full support for the victim,” the university said.

Judge Andrew Schulman sentenced Torbick, 39, of Lee, to 2½ to 5 years in prison. The sentence was lighter than the 5 to 10 years prosecutors sought for the multiple assaults.

PSU’s action came a week after the university issued its first statement saying that the university respects the First Amendment rights of students, faculty and staff to express their opinions and that those opinions were not official positions of the university.

PSU isn’t the only school system facing backlash in the wake of the Torbick sentencing, where nearly two dozen people showed up on her behalf, some of whom spoke and asked for a lighter sentence while praising her work as a counselor.

Bedford school superintendent Chip McGee resigned last week as pressure grew after Bedford High School Dean of Student Services Zanna Blaney wrote a letter for Torbick and spoke highly of her work during the sentencing.

Torbick was a counselor at Bedford High School before she was hired at Exeter High School for the 2016-2017 school year.

McGee was aware of Blaney’s plans to speak at the sentencing and had told the New Hampshire Union Leader that they “agonized” over whether to send her after Torbick’s defense lawyer had asked her to attend.

Bedford High School counselors Alison Mattson and Christine Mulcahey also submitted letters expressing support.

The Bedford School Board has launched an investigation.

Newfound Regional High School counselor Shelly Philbrick has also come under fire after she spoke in support of Torbick at the sentencing and wrote a letter. However, Newfound’s superintendent, Stacy Buckley, has said she was unaware of Philbrick’s plans to speak at the sentencing and that the issue is being investigated as a personnel matter.

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