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Plum school officials allowed teacher to prey on students, federal lawsuit alleges

| Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, 6:54 p.m.
Joseph Ruggieri, accompanied by a constable, leaves District Judge Linda Zucco's office after a hearing on July 29, 2015.
Lillian DeDomenic | For Trib Total Media
Joseph Ruggieri, accompanied by a constable, leaves District Judge Linda Zucco's office after a hearing on July 29, 2015.

Faced with accusations of sexual assaults by a politically powerful teacher, Plum school officials did nothing for more than three years, allowing the teacher to keep preying on female students, one of the victims claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

The woman, identified only as Jane Doe, was 17 when Joseph Ruggieri, 41, began having sex with her, the lawsuit says. Ruggieri was vice president of the teachers union.

High school Principal Ryan Kociela, Superintendent Timothy Glasspool and former School Resource Officer Mark Kost had heard complaints dating to at least 2011 from multiple teachers and other employees about Ruggieri's sexual conduct, said Robert Bracken, the woman's lawyer.

In contrast, when teacher Jason Cooper was accused of having sex with a student, the district promptly involved police, Bracken said.

“With Cooper, they moved swiftly,” he said. “With Ruggieri, they sought to protect their friend.”

Cooper, 39, is serving 18 to 36 months in prison. Ruggieri is serving 2 to 5 years in prison.

The woman is suing the school district, Kociela, Glasspool, Kost and Plum Borough.

Lee Price, the district's solicitor, declined to comment.

Kociela regularly sought Ruggieri's advice on school policy, interacted with him more than he did with any other teacher in the district, and the two socialized at Kociela's home, the lawsuit says. Ruggieri wrote a letter of recommendation for Kociela's wife when she applied for a fellowship, the lawsuit says.

Given their close relationship, Kociela should have referred the allegations against Ruggieri to an impartial party instead of handling them himself, the lawsuit contends.

The result was that internal investigations were stifled, and complaints about sexual assaults on students weren't reported to police, the suit alleges.

The woman's lawsuit also names another teacher as a defendant: Drew Zoldak, for a classroom incident in which she claims Zoldak, 41, said he missed a previous class because he was being interviewed by police “because of her” and gestured toward the victim. Zoldak denied the claim; an Allegheny County jury in June acquitted him on a witness intimidation charge.

The plaintiff claims the district, borough and school officials violated several of her constitutional rights. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, but also wants the district to acknowledge what happened, Bracken said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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