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Judge accepts ex-Plum teacher's offer to plead guilty in sexual abuse case

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 10:42 a.m.
Former Plum High School science teacher Jason Cooper
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Former Plum High School science teacher Jason Cooper
Jason Cooper, 38, of Penn Hills was charged in February on accusations he had sex with a female student. He was subsequently charged with witness intimidation because police said he called the victim. Cooper is scheduled to go to trial in November.
Submitted
Jason Cooper, 38, of Penn Hills was charged in February on accusations he had sex with a female student. He was subsequently charged with witness intimidation because police said he called the victim. Cooper is scheduled to go to trial in November.
Joseph Ruggieri is escorted out of the Plum Police Station on Monday, June 29, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Joseph Ruggieri is escorted out of the Plum Police Station on Monday, June 29, 2015.
Drew Zoldak, 40, a teacher at Plum High School, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of intimidation of a witness or victim on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
Drew Zoldak, 40, a teacher at Plum High School, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of intimidation of a witness or victim on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
Michael Cinefra
Allegheny County DA's Office
Michael Cinefra

His young victim called him a monster. The judge who sentenced him called him dangerous.

Jason Cooper, the former Plum High School teacher who befriended then took sexual advantage of a grieving student who sought his help, will spend 18 to 36 months in prison for his crimes, Common Pleas Judge David A. Cashman reluctantly decided Wednesday. He said Cooper deserves more time.

Cooper, 39, surrendered his teaching certificate, will get five years of probation and will be a registered sex offender for life.

He intended to argue that his relationship with the girl, then 18, was consensual, but instead agreed to a plea deal as jury selection was to begin for his trial.

“I trusted (Cooper) with my sorrow and feelings. I needed someone I could talk to,” the victim wrote in a letter Assistant District Attorney Brian Catanzarite read to the court. “He used that to his advantage. ... He twisted my views and even turned me against my own father. I lied to my family to protect him.

“I realize now what a vile, disgusting piece of human waste you are. ... Please make sure that this monster stays away from me and my family,” the victim wrote.

Cashman said he first discussed the plea with attorneys Monday, but he made Cooper and the attorneys wait a few hours after it was presented in court before accepting it.

“I'm half-tempted to reject this plea. I don't think it's sufficient to punish you for what you've done,” Cashman said Wednesday morning. “You are dangerous.”

When he reconvened the hearing at 1:30 p.m., Cashman reluctantly agreed to the plea, saying he didn't want to put the victim and family through a trial.

Cooper's charges could have carried a sentence of 11 to 22 years in prison if served consecutively, Cashman said.

“I'm sorry for what I put everyone in my life through. I just want to move past this and hope everyone can heal from my mistake,” Cooper said.

The teen had lost several family members, had a father working 12-hour days and was slipping into depression in late 2014 when Cooper started talking with her, first in class, then over the phone and on Twitter, Catanzarite said.

They started kissing in his classroom, and Cooper provided her with Long Island iced teas — a strong mix of several liquors — when she visited his home. They had sex after the girl helped Cooper, who was separated from his wife, move into an apartment in early 2015. She was 18 at the time. He later suggested that the victim sneak out and come to his apartment after her family was asleep.

“You behaved like a frat boy instead of a professional, married, middle-aged man. ... Any normal, responsible adult would have seen her vulnerability. How could you take advantage of that?” The victim's family wrote in a statement, which Catanzarite read aloud because the family chose not to attend the hearing. “It's only to save our child from more pain that we agreed to this plea.”

The family noted that the case, which led to a grand jury investigation of the school district and charges against three other teachers, had ostracized their family, cast a pall over the district and made parents worry about predators in their schools.

In exchange for Cooper's guilty plea to institutional sexual assault, misdemeanor corruption of minors and furnishing alcohol to a minor, prosecutors withdrew a charge of felony corruption of minors; he was sentenced to one to two years in prison. In a separate case, he pleaded guilty to witness intimidation for calling the victim after his arrest and was sentenced to an additional six to 12 months of prison, consecutive to the first case.

Defense attorney Michael DeRiso said Cooper lost his teaching certificate and public employee pension as a result of the investigation and plea. He will get back what he contributed to the pension system.

Cooper should get credit for his time in the Allegheny County Jail since January, when Cashman revoked his bond because he was seen driving slowly past the victim's house in December, DeRiso said.

Though he said Cooper took the plea to put the case behind him and get back to his family as early as possible, DeRiso maintained that the relationship was consensual.

“This young woman was 18; she was old enough to make her own decisions,” DeRiso said. “Had this young lady worked at a gas station... and a similar relationship took place, we would not be here having this conversation.”

School board member Vicky Roessler — chair of the Safe and Supportive Schools committee — attended the hearing but declined to comment. The district released a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Our school community continues to be pained by what has taken place between several teachers and students. However, we have taken meaningful corrective actions and measures to implement greater transparency and scrutiny when it comes to teacher-student relations,” the statement said. “Although still outraged by the behavior of a few individuals who are being brought to justice, we must remember that there are hundreds of outstanding and dedicated professionals and support staff in our schools with whom we can entrust the safety and well-being of our students.”

Megan Guza contributed. Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412 391 0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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