Outrage greets defense of counselor who sexually assaulted studentBy JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent
July 11. 2018 9:13AM
EXETER — Advocates for victims of sexual assault are expressing outrage after New Hampshire educators and dozens of others packed a sentencing hearing to praise the work of a former guidance counselor who admitted to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student from Exeter High School.
In a statement released Tuesday, the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence argued that the show of support for Kristie Torbick, especially from people who work with children, sends the wrong message.
At one point during the sentencing, those who supported Torbick stood up one by one and offered their names as the victim sat quietly in the front row.
“It’s alarming these guidance counselors have attempted to justify the actions of one of their peers and have asked the court for leniency in this case. A guidance counselor’s role is to foster the development of a child, not to defend an admitted child molester. Their irresponsible statements send the message to students that this behavior is somehow acceptable, and we hope that their actions have not deterred other victims from coming forward,” the coalition said.
Torbick, 39, of Lee, pleaded guilty to four counts of felonious sexual assault against the student who was a freshman at the time. The assaults occurred in Epping, Exeter and at Torbick’s home in Lee in December 2016 and January 2017.
Torbick apologized for the pain she caused and begged Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman for “compassion and mercy.”
Nearly two dozen people attended the sentencing on Torbick’s behalf and several spoke about how she had used poor judgment but was a dedicated mother, guidance counselor and volunteer at a cancer camp for children and was committed to making young lives better.
But prosecutors portrayed her as a woman who abused her position, gained the trust of a vulnerable student, and then tried to silence the victim to keep details of their sexual encounters quiet. They asked the judge to impose a five- to 10-year prison sentence, but he gave her 2½ to five years followed by a seven- to 14-year suspended sentence.
Rockingham County Attorney Patricia Conway expressed disappointment.
“The criminal justice system is often a frustrating and intimidating place for crime victims. Despite that, the victim in this case demonstrated tremendous courage and resolve throughout the investigation and prosecution.
“Kristie Torbick betrayed her position of trust within the community as a guidance counselor by perpetrating horrible crimes against a young victim. While the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office respects the decision of the court, it disagrees with the sentencing decision given Torbick’s actions and the position that she held,” Conway said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Bedford school Superintendent Chip McGee explained the decision to send Zanna Blaney, the dean of students at Bedford High School, to speak about Torbick when she worked for the school before getting hired in Exeter. Blaney spoke highly of Torbick and shared positive comments from performance evaluations.
McGee said the school provided the information at the request of Torbick’s defense attorney, Mark Sisti.
“We agonized about the right way to handle this. We thought about how painful these experiences are for those involved and those who trust us with their kids,” he said.
McGee apologized to anyone who felt it wasn’t appropriate for the school to share its positive experience with Torbick and said that he would take responsibility.
In a statement issued a few hours later, McGee said: "The entire Bedford School District community is appalled by the horrible acts of this former employee. Our hearts are with the young victim, and we keep the safety of our students of utmost priority.
"At the hearing, the Bedford School District was requested to speak. We provided information strictly about the professional conduct and the professional evaluations of the former employee during her tenure at Bedford High School. Prior to the hearing, like the general public, the Bedford School District was not privy to the details about the misconduct during her time at Exeter High School. In hindsight, we regret attending the hearing in that it may have suggested, however incorrectly, that we support this horrible and illegal behavior."
Shelly Philbrick, a guidance counselor at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol, also spoke at the sentencing and asked the court to “show justice for the victim, but also leniency” for Torbick. The superintendent for SAU 4 was on vacation and unavailable for comment Tuesday.
State Rep. Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, has worked to bring attention to what she described as a “rape culture” that has minimized and dismissed sexual assault.
Altschiller said Torbick used a classic set of circumstances employed by sexual perpetrators. She said she groomed the victim, destroyed boundaries through the repeated assaults, and then encouraged the teen to be quiet.
“Ms. Torbick is sadly just another perpetrator. She might have bought Girl Scout cookies and done some really great things in her life, but she abused her authority and sexually assaulted a student,” Altschiller said.