Plum school officials turned 'blind eye to obvious signs' of misconduct
Plum school district administrators turned “a blind eye to obvious signs of teacher misconduct” that allowed a “suspected serial child predator” to remain a Plum High School teacher for years before his arrest, according to a damning 100-page grand jury report released Thursday.
The Allegheny County grand jury's investigation into the actions of district administrators and school police followed the arrests of two high school teachers on sex assault allegations and uncovered evidence of sex abuse by a third teacher. What was uncovered wasn't enough for the jury to recommend charging “derelict” school officials.
Superintendent Timothy Glasspool, Principal Ryan Kociela and former School Resource Officer Mark Kost failed to protect students and left them vulnerable to abuse “by the very persons who are duty-bound to protect them,” the grand jury said.
The report particularly lambasted Kociela, who “had known of ‘rumors' of Ruggieri and numerous female students for years and yet never documented any of those matters, never contacted a counselor to assist any of the female students, never notified police, never notified ChildLine, never notified Allegheny County Children, Youth and Family Services and never reprimanded Ruggieri.” It called Kost essentially ineffective and incompetent.
Kociela declined to comment on the report. Kost's attorney, Phil DiLucente, said the report speaks for itself.
Glasspool said in an emailed statement that he agreed with the recommendation that no additional charges be filed.
“I dispute the accuracy of some of the testimony in the (report),” he said. “Nonetheless, there is no advantage attempting to correct these inaccuracies and conclusions referenced in the (report), as the goal is to move forward.”
Parent John Anderson, who has two daughters in the district, said the report is “despicable and disheartening.” Anderson has been an active member of the Safe & Supportive Schools Committee.
“I only had to get to page three before I figured out something needs to happen — by the time I got to page 100, I was sick.”
He said he has told school board members he expects answers on whether they are going to fire the district officials involved.
“If they haven't taken action by Tuesday night's school board meeting, I pity them because the fury that will be released upon them is akin to Revelations,” he said. “They're going to have to answer to some people.”
School Board President Kevin Dowdell said he is relieved the report has been released.
“It's been a long waiting process,” he said. “At least now we can see what the report says and take any more corrective action that they may be recommending.”
Dowdell said at an initial glance, the report is what he expected it to be as far as outlining what could have been done differently. The scandal, ongoing since February 2015 but with roots dating to 2007, started with the arrests of science teacher Jason Cooper, 39, and English teacher Joseph Ruggieri, 41, for institutional sexual assault, among other charges.
Michael Frank Cinefra, 29, of Penn Hills, a former substitute teacher, was charged in September with deviate sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old female student. The grand jury investigation turned up Cinefra's abuse, and he was charged in a separate presentment.
A fourth teacher, Drew Zoldak, was charged with witness intimidation when police said he identified Ruggieri's accuser in class.
The grand jury said that despite school officials' overt dereliction, the grand jury could not find enough evidence to recommend criminal charges against administrators.
“While we are tempted to affix criminal liability on other individuals who were clearly derelict in their statutory duties to protect the children in their care from physical and sexual abuse, we find ourselves effectively precluded from doing so based on the language of the relevant statutory provisions, involvement of (Kost) and the lack of documentation maintained by both administration and (the school resource officer),” the grand jury wrote.
Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said Zappala would not comment on the report.
The report paints a portrait of an administration that had the backs of close friends within the district far more than those of the students, even when confronted time and again with growing warnings of possible sexual abuse — especially by Ruggieri. Ruggieri was vice president of the teachers union and a longtime friend of Kociela's, the report said.
Among those sounding the alarm about him were a school board member who was a recent graduate; two guidance counselors; an ROTC instructor; a security guard; two teachers union members; and multiple students.
The refrain of Kociela, Glasspool and Kost remained much the same regardless of circumstances: They were aware of the rumors. They were being looked into. It was an internal investigation. It was taken care of.
Kociela maintained the “just rumors” stance even once police became involved: “After being explicitly asked about statements regarding Ruggieri's sexual relationships with students, Kociela reported that ‘rumors' had surfaced time and again for years regarding Ruggieri,” according to the report.
He then gave police the names of four students and three teachers with whom Ruggieri was rumored to have had sex.
The report indicates jurors were incredulous that at no point did administrators put enough stock into the rumors — which were “widespread amongst students, teachers and administrators — to contact police or ChildLine,” a state child abuse tip line.
Kociela told police that rumors regarding Ruggieri and Victim 2, the student whom Ruggieri was charged with sexually assaulting, surfaced in October 2014. He'd met with Ruggieri twice about the rumors, though no documentation of those meetings existed, according to the report.
The relationship was common knowledge at the school. By January 2015, Ruggieri and Victim 2 were receiving votes for “cutest couple” for the high school yearbook. One student athlete wrote on his locker in the locker room, “Mr. Ruggieri stole (my) girlfriend,” according to the report.
Kociela was aware of Ruggieri rumors regarding a girl the report called Victim 3 “years ago.” He met with Victim 3, her parents and Ruggieri, but no action resulted.
Kerry Plesco, a guidance counselor, told the grand jury she became aware of the rumors about Victim 3 in fall 2011. Upon telling Kociela of the rumors, she testified, he told her he wanted something factual. She reported information about the rumors to Kociela 10 times that school year.
Glasspool and Kociela noted time and again that information they received regarding inappropriate contact between Ruggieri and female students was simply gossip and rumor, not deserving of a call to police or ChildLine.
There were more victims over the years, the grand jury concluded, but it noted none testified they had sex with Ruggieri while high school students.
“Although year after year, Ruggieri was known to ‘pick a new girl,' ” according to the report, “it appears that neither (Kociela) nor (Kost) made any efforts to identify the pattern or put a stop to this predatory behavior by a teacher within the very walls of the school itself.”
“The superintendent needs to go,” said state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm. “If this school district has any desire to protect the young people of that district, then they need to remove every barrier to their children's safety that currently exists — starting with the superintendent.”
Cultural change starts with leadership, she said.
“Anyone who's been embedded in this culture this entire time … and hasn't taken responsibility, needs to go,” Storm said. “The poor response Plum leadership has shown in the aftermath of these incidents is indicative of its core cultural problem.”
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Emily Balser contributed.