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Plum School District considers fraternization limits as 2 teachers accused of sex with students

| Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, 11:24 p.m.
Jason Cooper, 38, of Penn Hills was charged in February on accusations he had sex with a female student. He was subsequently charged with witness intimidation because police said he called the victim. Cooper is scheduled to go to trial in November.
Jason Cooper, 38, of Penn Hills was charged in February on accusations he had sex with a female student. He was subsequently charged with witness intimidation because police said he called the victim. Cooper is scheduled to go to trial in November.
Joseph Ruggieri, 40, of Plum was charged in February on accusations he had sex with a different female student.
Joseph Ruggieri, 40, of Plum was charged in February on accusations he had sex with a different female student.
Joseph Ruggieri
Joseph Ruggieri

A suburban school district where two teachers are accused of having sex with students has no policy to prevent fraternization between them.

At least one school board member and a parent hope that changes soon.

“I want this in place so employees can see in black and white that we will not tolerate inappropriate behavior,” Plum school director Joseph Tommarello said Wednesday.

Superintendent Timothy Glasspool said although a code of conduct exists for teachers under the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Professional Standards and Practices Commission, it restricts only sexual harassment and sexual relationships.

Tommarello's proposal would restrict employees from entertaining, socializing or spending extra time with students so they don't forge an unprofessional relationship.

It would prohibit teachers from using electronic communications such as text messaging or social media to connect with students “to deter any sort of misconduct,” he said.

Plum parent Amy Williams supports a review of policies in the district, where 4,000 students are enrolled from elementary through high school.

“Everyone needs to take a long, hard look at what procedures there are, so there cannot be a question going forward,” said Williams, whose daughter Jordan, 15, is a sophomore at Plum High School. “Plum has really excellent teachers. ... I hate to see the whole community get tagged with a broad brush based on the alleged actions of a few,” she said.

Prompting discussion

Talk of policy changes arose a day after police arrested English teacher Joseph Ruggieri, 40, of Plum, charging him with one count each of sexual contact with a student and corruption of minors, both felonies.

A week ago, police charged Ruggieri's colleague, chemistry teacher Jason Cooper, 38, with institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors and furnishing alcohol to minors.

Neither Ruggieri nor Cooper could be reached for comment. Both are free on bail, awaiting preliminary hearings. Neither has a criminal record. Cooper's attorney, Mike DeRiso, did not return calls. It was not clear whether Ruggieri has retained counsel.

Ruggieri is vice president of Plum Borough Education Association, which represents 268 teachers. The union's president, Martha Freese, could not be reached.

Plum school board member Richard Zucco said the arrests send a message that the district will not tolerate inappropriate behavior.

“It will make a better atmosphere for students,” Zucco said. Investigators uncovered allegations against Ruggieri while investigating Cooper.

School board President Sal Colella declined to comment.

Plum police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong said the investigation into Ruggieri continues, involving other potential victims.

He said the investigation into Cooper has concluded, and police do not expect to file additional charges.

In Pennsylvania, it's illegal for a teacher to have sex with a student regardless of age or consent.

“If these guys are convicted of the crimes they're accused of doing, we're gonna whack them,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said.

Accusation questioned

Armstrong said a policy restricting out-of-school contact between teachers and students “doesn't guarantee anyone subject to it is going to follow it.”

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association does not have a model policy and does not advise districts on the topic, spokesman Steve Robinson said.

Ruggieri and Cooper have active teacher certifications from the state Department of Education. The superintendent suspended them with pay. Ruggieri is paid $101,500 a year; Cooper, $53,300.

Ruggieri's stepmother, Barbara Ruggieri of Huntington Station, N.Y., about 40 miles east of Manhattan, told the Tribune-Review that he would not jeopardize the career he loves.

“He always kept the teacher-student boundaries very clear,” she said. “He would never take an interest in a young person, especially a student. He loves being a teacher.”

Police said Ruggieri and a female student — identified as “Victim 1” in a criminal complaint — struck up a relationship at the end of last year.

The girl told police she and Ruggieri would meet in the parking lot of the Boyce Campus of the Community College of Allegheny County in Monroeville, communicate via phone and text messages, and have sex in his Plum apartment.

“Definitely, it's got to be the girl is lying,” Barbara Ruggieri said. “He would never ever even think of that.”

Police said Cooper's relationship with a senior girl began when she sought personal advice from him and he provided his personal phone number, according to the criminal complaint. They began talking after school hours, and when she went to his home the first time, he made her alcoholic drinks.

They later kissed, and the relationship turned sexual, the complaint states. They first kissed Dec. 28, and then “on occasion” in his classroom when no other students were around, she told police.

Adam Brandolph and Karen Zapf are Trib Total Media staff writers. Staff writers Kelsey Shea and Gideon Bradshaw contributed.

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