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Schools ignore grand jury's warning to let police investigate sex cases

| Tuesday, June 9, 2015, 11:15 p.m.
Plum School Board President Sal Colella, (second from left), addresses the public on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, during the school board meeting in Oblock Junior High School.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Plum School Board President Sal Colella, (second from left), addresses the public on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, during the school board meeting in Oblock Junior High School.

A grand jury in Harrisburg declared 17 months ago that school administrators are singularly unqualified to investigate alleged sexual abuse, but the practice continues.

“School district administrators lack training needed to conduct a meaningful investigation into whether or not physical or sexual abuse has occurred,” according to a Dauphin County grand jury's investigation of Susquehanna Township School District in January 2014.

The grand jury said administrators lack access to investigative resources such as search warrants, court orders, wiretaps or subpoenas and lack training in the questioning of victims, witnesses and suspects.

“Very often, a preliminary investigation will tip off a suspect and foreclose the availability of the investigative resources described above even once the police become involved,” the panel concluded.

Yet Plum School District and districts in Dauphin County and elsewhere continue to employ internal investigations.

In Halifax Area School District, less than 20 miles up the Susquehanna River from Susquehanna Township schools, Superintendent Michele Orner said it is “common sense” that the district would investigate rumors of inappropriate relationships between employees and students.

“We investigate everything,” she said. “I follow up on everything if it comes to me.”

In Upper Dauphin Area School District, Superintendent Evan Williams said simply contacting police is not enough.

“My community would want to make sure I also looked into it. I've got to follow up, too,” Williams said. “The first (thing) a parent will ask is, ‘What are you doing about it?' ”

State Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said what happened in the Susquehanna district “should have gotten the attention of every school administrator in the state, who should have asked themselves what they could do to make sure there wasn't another Susquehanna.”

Administrators at Susquehanna investigated reports that an assistant principal was having sex with a 16-year-old female but found no evidence to support the allegations. The abuse continued for nearly four months until police got involved, according to the grand jury. Police arrested the principal within three days. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 6 to 18 months in prison.

“Now, Plum is the next Susquehanna,” Storm said. “It's very frustrating and disheartening. It's like a broken record. They're not taking this seriously, regardless how horrific the crime.”

Former Plum School Board member Joseph Tommarello said he reported suspected inappropriate contact between English teacher Joseph Ruggieri and female students to Superintendent Timothy Glasspool in 2012 and 2014.

Glasspool said the district investigated one incident Tommarello reported and found it to be unsubstantiated.

“If there was an investigation conducted, it was conducted internally by the school district without the involvement of the police department,” said Plum police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong. He said that the department's computerized records date to 2000 and that the first time police investigated possible inappropriate contact between teachers and students at Plum was late January.

Ruggieri is charged with institutional sexual assault, as is a second Plum teacher, Jason Cooper. They and a third teacher, Drew Zoldak, are charged with witness intimidation.

In Dauphin County, the grand jury determined that the district's solicitor advised school administrators against contacting police on rumor alone.

But, the grand jury said, “If there was sufficient information to prompt the inquiry by (the assistant superintendent), there were reasonable grounds for a police referral.”

The grand jury issued specific recommendations for schools and for lawmakers who changed the state's mandatory reporting laws.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which provides model policies to schools, said it reviewed the recommendations but did not factor them into the model.

“When these recommendations were made, there were already changes coming down the line,” said the association's deputy general counsel, Katherine Fitz-Patrick. “We have updated the policy guides that we provide to members based on changes to the law.”

Donald Gilliland is an assistant metro editor and Katishi Maake is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach Gilliland at dgilliland@tribweb.com or Maake at kmaake@tribweb.com. Staff writer Karen Zapf contributed to this story.

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