Death of Penn Hills teacher shocks school district, Shaler neighbors
Nick Ionadi recalled greeting one of his favorite teachers at Penn Hills High School every morning by popping his head into the teacher’s classroom and yelling: “Hey, Babbit!”
Ionadi’s greeting to math teacher Don Babbit was a running joke that used a popular line from a Warner Bros. animated cartoon from the 1940s.
“He used to just look up at me and laugh and shake his head,” Ionadi, 37, of Irwin, said Wednesday of Don Babbit, who was shot and killed by police at his home in Shaler on Aug. 6.
The silly, daily student-teacher interaction underscores the level of accessibility Babbit had with students and why the community is in shock the day after the fatal encounter.
Around 3 p.m. Aug. 6, police responded to what started as a domestic dispute call after a woman said her husband was “behaving erratically” and had access to weapons.
Within an hour, police from Shaler, Hampton, Millvale and Indiana Township surrounded the home, blocked off the area and repeatedly asked Babbit over a public address system to come out of the home.
Patti Turano, who lives across the street from Babbit’s home, said she initially thought the swarm of police officers was a response to the recent rash of vehicle break-ins in Shaler.
“Don (Babbit) had a really nice BMW sports car in his garage, so at first, I thought maybe they caught somebody trying to break into it,” said Turano, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years.
Turano said police officers ordered residents off the street, but she was able to see the incident unfold from her house.
She said she could see Babbit outside his house wearing only what appeared to be a towel on his head and a pair of twisted underwear, but she did not know he had a gun because the view was partially obstructed by tree branches.
“I heard the police order him to stop and get down, but he didn’t listen,” Turano said. “Then, I heard shots and saw him stagger forward and fall down.”
Turano said she thought officers may have deployed a Taser to subdue Babbit but, when her daughter saw blood on his chest, she knew he had been shot.
“The sad thing to me is that this happened right in front of his wife and kids, who were sitting in a car at the bottom of the driveway,” said Turano.
Police said that when Babbit came out of his house, he was holding a gun and pointed it at police.
Three officers — two from Shaler and another from Hampton — opened fire, striking Babbit multiple times, according to Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough.
A shock to those who knew him
“This is really a shock to me,” said Turano, who described the Babbits as “some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”
“I can’t think of a single thing that would indicate something like this could happen.”
When Ionadi read the initial news reports, he couldn’t believe it.
“That definitely was not the guy we all know,” he said. “It was just so out of the ordinary. I thought it couldn’t be right.”
Ionadi graduated from Penn Hills in 2001 with an “A” in algebra, one of the several mathematics courses Babbit taught during his more than 20 years with the district.
Later in life, Ionadi grew to know Babbit professionally during his time as a biology teacher at Penn Hills High School from 2008 to 2016.
“When we would chat at the school, I still viewed him as my teacher,” Ionadi said. “I mean, I still called him Mr. Babbit, even in my 30s.”
Influenced Valley High teacher’s style
Ionadi, now a biology teacher at Valley High School in New Kensington, said Babbit’s charismatic teaching style influenced his own.
“It was really student-centered. He kept us engaged and involved the whole time,” Ionadi said. “And his personality — he had a really sarcastic wit to him.”
The former student said his math teacher never raised his voice or lost control in the classroom. Even when he taught at the high school, Ionadi never even saw Babbit get worked up.
Ionadi never met Babbit’s wife and children, he could only go off the loving things Babbit said about them.
“When he brought them up, he was always the extremely proud parent gushing about his kids,” Ionadi said. “It just goes to show you you never really know what’s going on in somebody’s life.”
Neighbor: Doesn’t add up
Amber Tepper, who has lived next door to the Babbits for the past three years, agreed that his actions on Aug. 6 do not match up with the person her family came to know.
“They mostly kept to themselves, but Don and his wife and kids were always very friendly,” she said. “Our sons played together, and we chatted with them whenever we would see each other.”
Tepper said her family was not at home when Babbit was shot; she learned what happened from neighbors who called her.
“They weren’t letting any people down the street,” she said. “One neighbor called me to make sure my son wasn’t at the house by himself, and another called because she thought that it was happening at my house.”
Tepper said she never heard any fighting at the Babbit house nor witnessed anything that might indicate he or the family were having problems.
“It’s a little frightening when something like this happens so close to you,” she said. “It’s a very quiet neighborhood. I don’t think I’d ever seen a police car even come down our street.”
The Penn Hills Athletic Association’s Twitter account said in a tweet that the community was heartbroken and Babbit would be remembered for his sense of humor and ability to connect with students.
Mr. Babbit was an incredible math teacher, golf coach, and colleague at Penn Hills. He will be remembered for his sense of humor and ability to connect with his students. The Penn Hills community is heart broken. Grief counselors are available 10-3 Weds-Fri in HS Cafe. #PHamily
— Penn Hills Athletics (@PH_Athletics) August 7, 2019
A Twitter account for the high school’s musical posted that Babbit “encompassed everything good about Penn Hills.”
Another Indian has fallen. Mr. Babbit encompassed everything good about Penn Hills. There are not enough words to express our sadness at the loss.
— Penn Hills Musical (@phhsmusical) August 7, 2019
Penn Hills School District Superintendent Nancy Hines declined to speak on Babbit’s behavior before police fatally shot him. She said it is not her place to speculate or judge.
“Penn Hills has shown repeatedly its heart and resiliency in times of struggle. In these moments, we have also displayed courage and solidarity,” she said in an email. “As we face yet another tragedy, we realize it is not our place to judge or even speculate about what’s being reported in the media. Rather, we ask everyone to keep Don and his family in your thoughts and prayers. We also ask the media to respect our community’s privacy as we attempt to grieve.”
The district opened its high school doors to those wishing to speak with grief counselors and a pastor Aug. 7-9.
“Don was a beloved member of our staff and had the distinct reputation among students, families and colleagues as being an exceptional teacher. He will be missed,” read a statement posted to the district’s website.
Three police officers fired a total of 10 shots, Allegheny County police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said.
Babbit was shot in the neck, head and trunk and was pronounced dead at 4:04 p.m., according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office.
The death was ruled a homicide.
The officers who fired the shots have been placed on leave pending an investigation led by Allegheny County police, who have released no further information.
Police will turn their findings over to the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office who will determine if the officers were justified in their actions.
4th police-involved shooting in a month
On Tuesday, before the events unfolded in Shaler, Zappala said his office wasn’t ready to discuss its investigations into other recent officer-involved shootings.
This is the fourth officer-involved shooting in Allegheny County since July 14, when a Penn Hills police officer shot and killed a man who was involved in a robbery/homicide investigation.
Allegheny County police are also investigating a July 23 shooting involving an undercover agent of the state Attorney General’s office in Ross. In that case, Zappala said he was concerned that the undercover drug buy occurred in a plaza that was near a daycare.
County police also are investigating an Aug. 3 shooting in South Park involving a Monongahela police officer.