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Parents say something should have been done about Avonworth teacher Street

| Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, 11:41 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The Avonworth Board of School Directors answer questions from the community during a regular scheduled meeting Monday. About 50 community members attended the meeting which had most of the community comment devoted to allegations of a teacher and alleged sexual misconduct.
Walter Street, 60, pleaded guilty to raping an unconscious victim, statutory sexual assault and six other related charges on Monday, July 21, 2014.

Parents wanted answers from the Avonworth School Board on Monday night about a longtime teacher accused of sexual assault for the second time in five years.

Ohio Township police on Jan. 31 charged Walter Street, 58, of Ben Avon with rape, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault and other crimes.

Parents at the meeting questioned board members about the district's knowledge of a 2009 accusation against Street and Avonworth's policies for identifying predators and protecting students.

“Even the slightest issue should have been addressed,” parent Rebecca Stetser said. “Should this issue ever occur again, God forbid, how are we going to address it?”

About 50 residents attended the meeting.

The victim initially filed a complaint in July 2009 accusing Street of repeated sexual assault. She later recanted.

District solicitor William Andrews said the district was aware of the allegations, but no charges were filed.

Ohio Township Detective Joseph Hanny said the department has asked the board not to reveal details of the case.

Superintendent Thomas Ralston alerted police on Jan. 17 when he found a letter on Street's school laptop detailing an inappropriate relationship with a former Avonworth student, according to a criminal complaint.

Investigators recently asked her if the original allegations were true, “and she stated ‘Yes, they were,' ” according to the report.

Ralston was on Street's computer because he received complaints that Street had an elementary school student sitting on his lap at school, said Michael Santicola, Street's attorney.

“My kids were on his lap. That didn't have to happen,” said Cathy Burnheimmer, who has two elementary age daughters in the district.

“There was no allegation from anyone until this (2014) incident,” Ralston said. “It happened. We acted on it.”

Santicola said his client is concerned about the mental well-being of the accuser and the public's perception of his teaching record.

Street is being held in the Allegheny County Jail on $200,000 bail awaiting a preliminary hearing on Thursday.

Sexual assault cases require sensitivity, said Jim Buckheit, head of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

“You can't say the person's name. You can't talk about the charges. You can't identify the victim,” he said. “It's important to communicate with parents about the things you're allowed to talk about, but during a criminal investigation, that isn't much.”

The state Department of Education will conduct an investigation, officials said. It could uphold or revoke Street's teaching certificate, depending on the case's outcome. If a teacher is acquitted or a victim recants, the state can reinstate a certificate, said Tim Eller, a department spokesman.

In 2013, the state took 196 disciplinary actions against individual educators, including 99 involving sexual misconduct. There were 228 actions against educators in 2012, of which 118 involved sexual misconduct.

Changes to Pennsylvania's Educator Discipline Act, which take effect Sunday, require a school's chief administrative officer to report allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse or exploitation within 15 days of discovery.

“The district has placed Mr. Street on administrative leave and directed him not to be on school property.” Ralston said in a Feb. 4 letter to parents.

District spokeswoman Dana Hackley declined to say whether Street is receiving pay but said administrators were aware of the victim's 2009 accusations. Street was transferred from the high school to the elementary school in August of that year.

“Regardless of whether or not (the school) knew about it, the victim recanted,” Hackley said.

The district of about 1,500 students covers Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township. Street joined Avonworth in 1989 as a music teacher at the middle and high schools, Hackley said.

Megan Harris and Kelsey Shea are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Harris at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com. Reach Shea at 724-772-6353 or kshea@tribweb.com.

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