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Plum sex abuse scandal mirrors national trend

| Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, 11:48 p.m.
Allegheny County DA's Office
Michael Cinefra

Plum High School's sex crime scandal is a shock to parents and school officials, but an estimated 4.5 million students in America's ele­mentary and secondary classrooms today have been raped, molested or sexually harassed by educators, experts told the Tribune-Review.

And that, they say, makes Plum more like the rest of American education than many people might like.

“The problem is that in many cases, decisions are made by school districts that risks are low, that I don't need to spend time on this. But there's someone in your school district who is being harassed, who is being abused right now, and you don't even know about it,” said Charol Shakeshaft, 67, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor regarded widely as the nation's top scholar on teachers who prey on kids.

To researchers like Shakeshaft, Tuesday's arrest of Michael Cinefra, 29, of Penn Hills, a former substitute teacher and Plum baseball coach, on charges of deviate sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl, wasn't an aberration. Instead, he fits the profile of the typical offender: A white teacher, about 28, who fraternizes inappropriately with a student, usually of the opposite gender.

“This misconduct crosses all demographics, however. Mostly, it's teachers who have access to kids alone, and that can be any teacher — male or female. There's no demographic that lacks offenders,” she said.

And the Plum scandal is not the only one at a Western Pennsylvania school. Since the Plum scandal broke in early January, the Trib counted at least 13 cases involving various teachers and school personnel across the region, including a female Ringgold High School guidance counselor accused of having repeated sexual contact with a teenage boy, a male Jeannette wrestling coach who allegedly molested a teenage girl and a Sto-Rox School District special education aide who was charged with sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl.

To Shakeshaft, districts have lagged in implementing programs proven to halt inappropriate contact between teachers and students and trigger police probes when educators stray.

Schools should be running rigorous training initiatives that arm students, parents and fellow educators with the knowledge they need to identify “red flags” signalling misconduct and report suspected sexual predators, but too often “they practice fire drills; they don't practice on any of these issues,” she said.

Three national studies found that only about 6 percent of school sexual abuse violations will become known to cops or social workers, mostly because students fear that adults won't believe them.

“That's why it's very important that there be training for kids. You might not be able to stop a teacher who's a sexual predator or a teenager who believes that he or she is really in love with the offender, but good training will put friends on alert that this behavior is illegal, the teacher is breaking the law and it should be reported,” Shakeshaft said.

The Trib found it difficult to determine what, if anything, Plum has done to substantially reform its training procedures and other policies designed to rid its staff of suspected child abusers in the nine months since teachers Jason Cooper, 38, and Joseph Ruggieri, 40, were charged with institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors and witness intimidation involving girls at the high school.

District Superintendent Timothy Glasspool didn't return telephone and email messages on Wednesday, but Plum School Board member Tom McGough insisted there's a “heightened scrutiny” at the high school about teacher misconduct.

McGough said that Plum police Officer Scott Ricketts frequently walks the hallways to monitor building activity and a board initiative — the Safe & Supportive Schools Committee — met once and eventually will release recommendations on “how to best protect students and deal with these situations.”

Safe & Supportive chairwoman Michele Gallagher said she's working to establish a sexual misconduct hotline for Plum students to phone in tips. She and Plum Assistant Superintendent Guy Rossi on Tuesday met with a pair of potential contractors for the initiative, but no formal action by the board has been taken on that and other proposals, such as running more frequent criminal background checks on educators.

One of America's foremost experts on abusive teachers lives in Mt. Lebanon, about 26 miles from Plum's campus, but no one from the committee has called him.

Chester Kent, a retired researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and a former school administrator, is an advisor to the nonprofit group SESAME, or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. The group helped rewrite Pennsylvania's statutes after the molestation scandal by former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Kent believes Plum and other districts can start reforming their “cultures of permissiveness” by installing institutional “cross checks” that nab teachers in the one to three months they typically spend “grooming” their victims with alcohol, flirting and other inappropriate contact.

Kent, 73, said Plum should begin by installing a committee whose focus is on Title IX, landmark 1972 federal legislation designed to end gender discrimination and sexual assault in public schools.

“All parents should demand a Title IX committee. It should work with the district's Title IX coordinator to end the sexual abuse of children by faculty,” Kent said. “It should include school board members, administrators, parents and community leaders to review the policies that the district has about teacher sexual misconduct and spearhead the type of training fellow teachers need to stop the abuse.”

When contacted by the Trib on Wednesday, Plum employees would say only that they don't know whether they have a Title IX committee. It took four telephone calls to get anyone at the district to identify a Title IX coordinator, Michael Brewer, who did not return messages from the Trib.

A grand jury convened by the Allegheny County District Attorney's office continues to probe allegations of institutional wrongdoing at Plum.

Carl Prine and Karen Zapf are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Prine at 412- 320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com. Reach Zapf at 412-871-2367 or kzapf@tribweb.com.

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