Guidance counselor assault case sparks proposed law

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire lawmakers are considering restrictions on school districts and their employees in response to a guidance counselor's sexual assault of a student and the support she received from former colleagues.

The House Education Committee held a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would ban school employees from providing character references for those convicted of sexual misconduct involving a child. Republican Rep. Linda Camarota, of Bedford, said she drafted the bill in hopes of sparing other towns the "devastating consequences" her community suffered after school district employees spoke at Kristie Torbick's sentencing last summer. Torbick, a former guidance counselor in Bedford, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student in Exeter, where she later worked.

Bedford's superintendent resigned over his decision to allow another district employee to support Torbick in court, and that employee has been placed on leave. Many parents, meanwhile, asked that their children not be assigned to guidance counselors who backed Torbick.

"Imagine for a moment you are a 14-year-old student ... imagine you, the student, have been sexually assaulted by an adult. Imagine you learn your assigned counselor had gone to testify in favor of leniency for a convicted child molester. Would you feel comfortable or confident or safe in seeking guidance or support related to child abuse or sexual abuse?" Camarota said at the hearing.

Opponents of the bill said it violates the First Amendment right to free speech and would have a chilling effect on the criminal justice system. Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the bill violates by the U.S. Constitution and a state law that offers additional protection to employees engaging in free speech.

"Our First Amendment means little if it only protects popular views," he said.

He called the bill a classic example of "viewpoint discrimination" because it would signal out a particular opinion for prohibition while permitting others.

"We think this bill really does threaten the criminal justice system," he said. "It's critical for courts to be able to hear all relevant evidence in a case, including evidence that's unpopular, including at the sentencing phase."

The bill was also opposed by the teachers' union NEA-NH and attorney Jon Meyer, who said its ambiguous language would have unintended consequences.

The New Hampshire School Boards Association supported the bill, though executive director Barrett Christina said he agreed with the points raised by opponents.

"We wanted to support bill, if nothing else, to show the purpose and intent that we should be looking at the safety of kids, first and foremost," he said.

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