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PSU under fire for faculty's support of guidance counselor convicted of sexual assault of student

By JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent

July 26. 2018 9:47AM
Kristie Torbick addresses the Rockingham County Superior Court earlier this month at her sentencing hearing for sexual assault. She pleaded guilty to assaulting a student while a guidance counselor at Exeter High School. (JASON SCHREIBER/CORRESPONDENT)



Plymouth State University is the latest to come under fire after it was revealed that current and retired professors wrote letters of support for former Exeter High School guidance counselor Kristie Torbick, who admitted to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student on multiple occasions.

“We’re seeing the people who are training all these new guidance counselors for the state supporting this guidance counselor who raped a child. How many other guidance counselors have learned from these teachers at Plymouth State?” said Alexandria Police Chief Donald Sullivan, who has turned to his department’s Facebook page to express his anger and fear that the praise for Torbick will force some child victims of sexual assault to keep quiet.

At Torbick’s sentencing on July 9, nearly two dozen letters of support were submitted to Rockingham County Superior Court. Torbick, 39, of Lee, was given a 2 1/2- to 5-year prison sentence after she pleaded guilty to four counts of felonious sexual assault. Prosecutors had argued that a five- to 10-year sentence was more appropriate.

On the day of the sentencing, the courtroom was filled with educators and other professionals who came to support her, including Bedford High School Dean of Student Services Zanna Blaney and Newfound Regional High School guidance counselor Shelly Philbrick, who spoke on her behalf and commended her work with students. (Click here for today's related editorial.)

Blaney met Torbick when they attended the school counseling graduate program at PSU.

Plymouth doctor Nancy Strapko, an associate professor emeritus and former graduate school health education coordinator at PSU, also spoke at the sentencing and wrote a letter about her therapy sessions with Torbick. She insisted that she wasn’t a “predator.”

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.”

Torbick also received letters of support from Michael L. Fischler, professor emeritus of counselor education and school psychology at PSU, and Gary Goodnough, a current PSU professor of counselor education who served as her adviser and internship supervisor.

Goodnough praised her and wrote that “no benefit to society would be served by incarcerating her.”

PSU President Donald Birx released a statement Wednesday condemning Torbick’s actions, but through spokesman Marlin Collingwood would not address concerns about the positions taken by PSU faculty and whether the university would investigate.

Birx said the personal opinions of faculty, staff and students are completely separate from the opinions of PSU and that the university wasn’t aware of the letters written during the sentencing phase.

Collingwood insisted that the writers didn’t represent PSU because their letters weren’t written on PSU stationery, though the letters made clear their PSU connections.

“I want to make the position of the University clear: Plymouth State University condemns in the strongest terms the actions of Ms. Torbick and supports the victim in this case. We take seriously the sacred trust between educators, students and families and, in the case of Ms. Torbick, that trust was broken,” Birx said in the statement.

He continued, “What Ms. Torbick did as a former member of this community and a graduate of PSU is a violation of what Plymouth State University as an institution and as a community stands for and the values we teach to students every day. We all must work together to support this victim and anyone who suffers abuse in any form.”

John Small, chairman of the University System of New Hampshire’s board of trustees, also stressed that the faculty didn’t reflect the views of PSU.

“As chairman of the board, we don’t condone this behavior,” he said of Torbick’s actions.

When asked to address concerns about a professor of counselor education taking such a position on child sexual abuse in a letter, Small said, “I certainly hope that this person is going to teach an appropriate approach to that education and, frankly, if they don’t that’s a different performance issue.”

PSU is also facing criticism from students and alumni.

“Since graduating in 2015, this is the first time I have been ashamed of Plymouth State University. To have members of my community speak out so vocally and publicly in support of an abuser and predator is absolutely heartbreaking,” graduate Kate Gonzalez wrote in a letter sent to PSU leaders.

Sullivan, the Alexandria police chief, said he wants to encourage any young people who don’t feel comfortable going to their school counselors to report abuse in the wake of the Torbick case to come to police or a crisis center.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable that so many so-called ‘professionals’ can be this blind to victim blaming and the impact their statements have on victims of sexual assault,” he said.


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