Fired high school dean files federal lawsuit against school district, too
Mental health counselor Nancy Strapko treated a female guidance counselor who admitted to sexually assaulting a male at the high school where she taught.
She testified as a paid expert witness in favor of leniency at Kristie Torbick’s sentencing, and questioned whether the male student was a “victim,” because he was the “pursuer” in the relationship. Torbick’s resulting sentence was half of what prosecutors wanted.
Plymouth State University didn’t appreciate Strapko saying anything that could have helped its disgraced alumna.
The public university said it would not rehire Strapko as an adjunct professor last summer, just a week after saying it wouldn’t punish professors for their “personal opinions.” It specifically called her “pursuer” language “legally wrong and morally reprehensible.”
Now to head off a lawsuit, PSU and the University System of New Hampshire are paying Strapko $350,000, the New Hampshire Union Leader reports.
The newspaper obtained the Feb. 15 settlement figure from the university system’s general counsel under the state right-to-know law.
The parties released a joint statement that described the settlement as a “mediated resolution”:
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.
Two other PSU professors of counselor education, Michael Fischler and Gary Goodnough, also gave the court letters of support for Torbick. The administration forced them to take “additional Title IX training” as a condition of returning to teach.
Fischler’s attorney Jon Meyer told the Union Leader he hadn’t sued but declined to say if he’s negotiating a similar settlement with the university for his client.
Meyer told President Donald Birx in August that the punishment was illegal, caused “irreparable” damage to Fischler’s record, and would have a “chilling effect” on PSU faculty who are asked to testify in sentencing.
Meyer is also representing Zanna Blaney, a 10-year veteran of Bedford High School who was fired as dean of students after testifying at Torbick’s sentencing.
“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 [Blaney’s] termination before the Bedford School Board on Jan. 23 and Feb. 14. The board turned her down unanimously. …
Blaney wants her job back, any back pay and benefits, enhanced compensatory damages for violation of her rights and attorney fees.
The suit argues the school district violated her speech rights under both state law protecting public employees and the First Amendment.
Blaney limited her testimony to “truthful and relevant employment performance,” took a personal day during the summer to testify, consulted with then-Superintendent Charles McGee, and didn’t even use school letterhead for her written submission, according to the suit:
“Plaintiff was falsely portrayed as having supported Torbick and testified against the student victim,” the suit reads. …
The Bedford school board held two hearings in January and February on Blaney’s appeal.
The five-member board denied the appeal on Mar. 13.
“The Board acknowledged that aside from the Torbick controversy that the Plaintiff’s job performance was ‘excellent,’” the suit reads.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education put PSU on its “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list this year because of the Strapko punishment, in spite of the public university’s stellar “green light” rating from FIRE for its written speech policies.
It warned the university in September that PSU could not legally punish a professor for testifying in judicial proceedings, a situation that FIRE said it had never previously encountered in its 20-year history.
In a statement Tuesday, FIRE said the very existence of fair trials depends on “the ability of witnesses to be able to come forward and testify truthfully without fear that their government employer might retaliate against them.”
Zach Greenberg, program officer in FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said the $350,000 payout to Strapko “represents the high costs of failing to uphold the First Amendment rights of faculty at a public university.”
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