CONCORD — The Bedford High School dean who lost her job after testifying on behalf of a former co-worker is suing Bedford schools, demanding her job back and monetary damages for her wrongful termination.
Zanna Blaney, the former dean of students, filed the lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court. Blaney was suspended from her job last summer and eventually fired.
The Goffstown resident lost her job following a storm of traditional media and social media criticism for testifying during a sentencing hearing for former co-worker Kristie Torbick. A guidance counselor, Torbick had been convicted of sex-related crimes involving an Exeter High School student.
Manchester lawyer Jon Meyer, whose specialty is employment law, filed the suit.
“We’ve done everything we can to get her rights respected without going to court,” said Meyer, noting there was a closed-door appeal of her termination before the Bedford School Board on Jan. 23 and Feb. 14. The board turned her down unanimously in March.
Bedford school officials said little, other than to say Blaney started working there in July 2008 and earns a salary of $99,500.
“I am not prepared to make a statement at this time, but will reach out when I am,” wrote Superintendent Michael Fournier.
The lawsuit was filed the same day that the University System of New Hampshire acknowledged a $350,000 payment after firing Nancy Strapko, an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University, who also testified on Torbick’s behalf.
Blaney wants her job back, any back pay and benefits, enhanced compensatory damages for violation of her rights and attorney fees.
“She loved doing what she did, and she was very good at it,” Meyer said about why Blaney wants to return. “She was devoted to it.”
The lawsuit claims the termination violated Blaney’s free-speech rights, a New Hampshire law that protects freedom of expression for public employees, and public policy.
“Plaintiff’s action in providing truthful and relevant employment performance testimony at a sentencing hearing, and to the criminal defendant’s attorneys, is in support of public policy, and the right of criminal defendants to present testimony pertaining to their sentencing,” the suit reads, quoting court rules for criminal procedure.
The suit said that Torbick’s criminal defense lawyers twice asked Blaney to provide input at the sentencing hearing. Blaney limited her comments to Torbick’s work performance, she did not use Bedford schools letterhead for her written submission, she took a personal day during the summer to testify, and she consulted with former Superintendent Charles McGee.
McGee told her that testimony was “the right thing to do,” the lawsuit said. McGee resigned his post after the criticism.
The suit said that Blaney’s comments were honest and accurate. She expressed no opinion about the length of sentence, and did not say she was testifying on behalf of Bedford Schools.
“Plaintiff was falsely portrayed as having supported Torbick and testified against the student victim,” the suit reads.
She was told to leave the Bedford High School building on Aug. 3. She worked until Aug. 31 until placed on paid leave. By Sept. 28, school officials gave her notice that her contract would not be renewed.
Bedford parent Kristin Austin said she fully supports the actions taken against the former dean of students.
“As a community, we should be doing everything in our power to make sure our children know their safety is our number-one priority,” Austin said.
Bedford resident Maggie Wachs said that in the lawsuit, Blaney is now saying she was at the hearing as a private citizen speaking freely, which contradicts what Blaney and McGee communicated to the school district last summer.
“So I’m left with more questions than answers,” Wachs said. “Why did they mislead the school community into believing it was a professional obligation when she would’ve been protected by the First Amendment? Was she thinking of the students when she publicly and passionately spoke to lessen Torbick’s sentence and then tried to pass it off as providing a professional evaluation? Does a school administrator who attempts to mislead the community to this degree meet our district’s standards for employment, or even basic professional ethics?”