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Grand jury investigating Plum sex scandal involving possibly 8 students

| Tuesday, May 19, 2015, 1:39 p.m.
Joseph Ruggieri (right), Plum High School teacher, turned himself in Tuesday, March 17, 2015, for arraignment on a witness intimidation charge filed against him. Ruggieri, who is charged with having sex with a Plum High School student, arrived at Judge Linda Zucco's office with his attorney Dan Konieczka.
Lillian DeDomenic | For Trib Total Media
Joseph Ruggieri (right), Plum High School teacher, turned himself in Tuesday, March 17, 2015, for arraignment on a witness intimidation charge filed against him. Ruggieri, who is charged with having sex with a Plum High School student, arrived at Judge Linda Zucco's office with his attorney Dan Konieczka.

An Allegheny County grand jury is investigating whether teachers at Plum High School abused as many as eight female students over as many as eight years and that school officials kept it quiet, according to a sealed search warrant executed Tuesday.

The warrant — signed Monday by Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos, who supervises the grand jury — sought records that could show whether district officials knew about inappropriate contact between staff and students.

The warrant indicates that a grand jury is investigating whether criminal charges should be filed against school officials for failing to report known sexual abuse.

Among the violations under consideration are tampering with records, fabricating evidence, obstructing the administration of law, failure to report abuse and intimidation, retaliation or obstruction in a child abuse case, according to the warrant.

Detectives for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office served the warrants during a teacher in-service on sexual misconduct.

“Today, investigators from the Office of the District Attorney issued several search warrants relative to the ongoing police investigation,” Superintendent Timothy Glasspool wrote in a statement on the district's website. “We have and will continue to cooperate fully with authorities regarding the investigations and charges against teachers involved in alleged inappropriate conduct with students.”

Police arrested teachers Joseph Ruggieri, 40, of Plum and Jason Cooper, 38, of Monroeville in February on charges of having sexual contact with students.

Ruggieri, who was scheduled to appear Wednesday before District Judge Linda Zucco, waived the charges to court. His next court appearance is scheduled for July 8.

Zappala declined comment.

According to the search warrant — first reported on WTAE's website — investigators sought physical and digital documents related to district policies regarding sexual abuse; computers and tablet devices to which Ruggieri and Cooper had access; and correspondence between Mark Kost, the district's former school resource officer, and district officials.

The judge sealed the affidavit that details the reasons for the search.

Kost's attorney, Phil DiLucente, said his client being mentioned in the warrant does not concern him. “We have nothing to hide from, or cause for concern,” he said. “It is simply an investigative tool that is necessary to get to the facts of the investigation.

“Mr. Kost did not have any knowledge whatsoever of any serious complaints and if so would have filed the proper paperwork in each and every instance.”

Plum Borough Education Association president Martha Freese did not return calls seeking comment.

Plum police Chief Jeff Armstrong said the investigation into Ruggieri continues, involving other potential victims, although he declined to say how many.

“We don't know if the number is accurate,” he said.

Armstrong said the department has not gotten closer to filing more charges against Ruggieri.

“The detective (Mark Focareta) has not led me to believe any other additional charges are imminent,” Armstrong said.

Ruggieri's lawyer, R. Anthony DeLuca, said his client waived his right to a preliminary hearing because the standard of proof is very low and there was no point fighting them.

“Essentially, if the witness in this case states that Mr. Ruggieri engaged in the activities alleged in the affidavit of probable cause in support of the complaint, the charges will be held for court,” DeLuca wrote in a prepared statement. “At this point, as it appears that the witness will provide such testimony, Mr. Ruggieri saw little benefit in holding the hearing.”

Ruggieri, formerly vice president of the Plum Borough Education Association, remains on house arrest. He is charged with institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors and witness intimidation.

A judge held for court the charges against Cooper at a hearing in April.

A third teacher, Drew Zoldak, is charged with witness intimidation. Authorities said Zoldak, 40, of Allegheny Township, identified a girl in his class as one who allegedly had sex with Ruggieri. Zoldak's preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 27.

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-871-2367 or kzapf@tribweb.com.

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