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Plum officials reassess equipment policy after sexual assault case

| Tuesday, June 30, 2015, 10:54 p.m.
Plum High School teacher Joseph Ruggieri, charged with having sex with a student, is escorted out of the Plum police station in June 2015. (Trib photo)
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Plum High School teacher Joseph Ruggieri, charged with having sex with a student, is escorted out of the Plum police station in June 2015. (Trib photo)

The head of policy for the Plum school board expressed surprise Tuesday that a Plum high school teacher kept a school-issued laptop three months after officials placed him on unpaid leave for allegedly having sex with a student — and that he allegedly used that laptop to email the girl in violation of a court order.

The school has no policy on return of district equipment when an employee is suspended, said Loretta White, policy committee chairwoman and a retired district teacher. She plans to propose a policy at the July 7 board meeting.

“We never ran into this situation before,” she said.

White said she turned in her district-issued laptop when she lost re-election in 2009. Administrators returned it to her when she was appointed to a vacant seat in 2010.

Investigators on Monday charged English teacher Joseph Ruggieri, 40, of Plum with victim intimidation for sending anonymous emails and at least once calling the student, who graduated in June. He remained jailed on $75,000 bail. It's the second time Ruggieri has been charged with witness intimidation.

His attorney, Anthony DeLuca, said even if Ruggieri sent the emails, they do not merit the charge.

DeLuca said “it does not appear that, even if the alleged communications are from my client, he has engaged in intimidating conduct as required under the crime charged.”

The arrest revealed a distinctive split between how the borough police department and district officials view the case.

Superintendent Timothy Glass­pool, who has not responded to the Tribune-Review's messages, told another media outlet that district officials were aware Ruggieri had the school's computer but that Plum police told them not to retrieve it.

Plum police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong said he doesn't know why the district didn't reclaim the laptop. He said police in February asked the district to wait a “day or two” before collecting the laptop.

“They understood the reason for the delay and knew when the time had passed,” Armstrong said. “They would have known we were done doing what we needed to do.”

Police and school accounts differed last month when former Plum school board member Joe Tommarello claimed he alerted Glasspool in 2012 that he was concerned Ruggieri had inappropriate contact with a student.

District Solicitor Lee Price said school officials investigated similar allegations and the alleged victim and her family denied them. Price said former high school resource officer Mark Kost was aware of the investigation and determined no charges were warranted.

Armstrong countered that he has no record of any officer, including Kost, investigating claims at the school before the February arrests. Kost's attorney, Phil DiLucente, said the school's claim is “absolutely completely and utterly false.”

Asked about the ongoing divergence in narratives, Armstrong said, “We have different perspectives.”

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he doesn't know the particulars of the Plum investigation but isn't surprised that the district and police department accounts don't match up.

“There are many entities involved and multiple layers,” Buckheit said. Each agency “only shares so much” information, leading to confusion.

Parents and students get caught in the middle, he said.

Parents want to ensure during summer activities and when the school year begins “that their children are in a safe environment,” Buckheit said.

“Clearly, the magnitude of what has transpired is extraordinarily serious and problematic, and probably dominated every waking hour of the administration,” Buckheit said.

Ruggieri is one of two teachers charged with institutional sexual assault. Jason Cooper, 38, of Penn Hills, was charged in connection with a different female student. Cooper resigned from his teaching job.

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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