PLYMOUTH — The University System of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University have agreed to pay a former adjunct lecturer $350,000 to avoid a potential lawsuit after she lost her job for speaking in support of a former Exeter High School school guidance counselor who sexually assaulted a student.
Nancy Strapko, a local mental health counselor, reached the settlement with the university system in the wake of last year’s firestorm that erupted after several educators and other professionals pleaded for leniency at Kristie Torbick’s sentencing in Rockingham County Superior Court.
The amount of the settlement was released by USNH general counsel Ronald Rodgers in response to a request for information under the Right-to-Know law, filed by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
The agreement was signed on Feb. 15.
PSU dismissed Strapko on Aug. 1, 2018, saying in a public statement that she would 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 her sentencing on July 9, 2018, asking for leniency after the 39-year-old Torbick of Lee pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual assault on a 14-year-old student.
Judge Andrew Schulman sentenced Torbick to 2½ to 5 years in prison. The sentence was lighter than the 5 to 10 years prosecutors sought.
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.”
Strapko’s description of the victim as the “pursuer” outraged many, including advocates for sexual assault survivors.
In its statement announcing her dismissal, the university wrote, “In PSU’s opinion, portraying a 14-year-old sexual assault victim as a ‘pursuer’ is legally wrong and morally reprehensible.”
Rodgers, along with Strapko’s attorneys, Chuck Douglas, Megan Douglass and Jared Bedrick, released a joint public statement on the recent settlement.
“The University System of New Hampshire and Dr. Nancy Strapko have reached a mediated resolution of their concerns arising out (of) an assessment Dr. Strapko provided in a criminal sentencing hearing. The parties abhor all forms of interpersonal exploitation, in particular the sexual abuse of children. They also agree on the importance of witnesses participating in the criminal justice process, including criminal sentencing,” the statement read.
The attorneys from both sides declined to comment beyond the statement.
PSU professors Michael L. Fischler and Gary Goodnough also came under fire for their letters of support.
Fischler, a professor emeritus of counselor education and school psychology, and Goodnough, a professor of counselor education who served as Torbick’s adviser and internship supervisor, both agreed to complete additional training on sexual assault and to work closely with PSU faculty, students and staff to address the issues and the concerns created by their letters, the university said in a statement.
But Manchester-based attorney Jon Meyer, who is representing Fischler, has criticized PSU for disciplining his client, insisting that he was punished for exercising his constitutional and statutory free expression rights.
In a letter to PSU President Donald Birx dated Aug. 17, 2018, Meyer claimed the disciplinary action was illegal and was taken to protect the university’s reputation. He wrote that the action caused “serious and irreparable additional damage to the sterling record that he has built over the course of his professional career.”
Meyer also argued that the action will have a “chilling effect” on people who are asked to testify during future sentencing proceedings.
Meyer said Monday that no lawsuit has been filed. He declined to comment on any possible negotiations with the university.
Fallout from the Torbick sentencing also led to the resignation of Bedford school superintendent Chip McGee. He faced pressure after Bedford High School educators also supported Torbick, who was a Bedford counselor before she was hired in Exeter.
Newfound Regional High School guidance counselor Shelly Philbrick also resigned after she spoke at Torbick’s sentencing.