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Handling of Plum High School sex scandal saddens victims’ advocates

Nearly three decades ago, Beth Docherty says, she was raped by her high school band director.

Despite rumors and reports that the teacher had sexually abused students, officials did nothing. Only once administrators found out about Docherty did they act — by allowing the teacher to resign and get a job in another state.

Now Docherty, president of the board of directors for Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, said she is watching the latest high school sex scandal unfold — at Plum High School, where two teachers are charged with institutional sexual assault and a third with intimidating a witness — and she wonders whether such situations will ever end.

“I feel saddened for the victims,” she said. “This could have been prevented. And after it came out, things should have been handled differently. I keep hoping things will change, but here we are 30 years later, and it’s like an identical situation.”

Docherty and other advocates for sexual assault victims said administrators at Plum did not do enough to prevent the assaults. And they made the situation worse, officials said, by refusing outside help for staff and students who might need training or counseling. They threatened students with arrest if they spoke about the allegations.

“Plum High School is the poster school for what not to do in this situation,” said Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. “People want to pull in ranks because they don’t want it to get out. They say, ‘Let’s not let anyone know this happened,’ when the reality is it happens every day. … I don’t understand most of what they’ve done. They’ve really made a bad, criminal situation a lot worse.”

They didn’t have to, officials said, noting that there are simple, common-sense steps institutions can and should implement to handle such situations.

Before any sign of trouble, the advocates said, schools must build relationships with service providers that have expertise in areas such as sex assault, suicide, bullying and drug addiction.

Schools officials are responsible for educating students and providing a safe learning environment, they said, not handling sex scandals.

Pittsburgh Action Against Rape has worked with Pittsburgh Public Schools for more than 12 years, Hall said. This fiscal year, the organization has provided training and other services to institutions such as the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Quaker Valley and Northgate school districts, Manchester Academy Charter School and Discovery House, among others.

Those institutions are not subjects of sex scandals like the one at Plum, Hall noted. The training is part of a “proactive approach” aimed at prevention.

Hall said she reached out to Plum school officials to provide training and counseling services, but administrators never responded.

Lost sense of safety

The PA Coalition Against Rape also is active with schools.

After the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, the coalition worked with Penn State University on a three-year grant to train staff on mandatory reporting laws, how to look for signs of abuse and other areas, said Kristen Houser, a coalition spokeswoman. And it provided counseling services — not just to victims, but to anyone in the affected community who needed it.

“When something like this happens, there’s a sense of grief for everybody,” Houser said. “We saw this with the entire State College community. It makes people feel like they’ve suddenly and unexpectedly lost a sense of safety. The world as they know it is gone, and they wonder, ‘What else in my life is not as it seems?’ ”

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. agrees with this approach.

“After the Sandusky arrest and the subsequent tweaking of the institutional sexual assault statute, members of our office went to as many school districts as would have us to explain the importance of mandatory reporting and to reinforce the concept of institutional sexual assault being a crime of opportunity in which people use their position of authority over a student to groom, coerce and intimidate them,” said Mike Manko, Zappala’s spokesman.

“Without addressing the Plum School District investigation specifically, the district attorney is most definitely in favor of districts using a multifaceted approach and outside agencies such as victim advocate groups to educate the educators on a regular basis,” Manko said.

“We believe that such an approach will not only sharpen people’s skills to identify a potential sexual assault situation, but would also go a long way toward preventing a culture or atmosphere … in which inappropriate relationships may not be viewed with the concern and seriousness that is required by mandatory reporting and the institutional sexual assault law.”

‘A chilling message’

In Plum, three high school teachers were arrested in as many months.

Jason Cooper, 38, a chemistry teacher, and Joseph Ruggieri, 40, an English teacher, are accused of having sex with two students and charged with institutional sexual assault. Police also charged them with witness intimidation, alleging they contacted their victims.

Plum police charged a third teacher, Drew Zoldak, 40, with witness intimidation, accusing him of singling out Ruggieri’s alleged victim during a class.

“The reason I wasn’t here on Friday is because two men in suits from the District Attorney’s Office were asking me hundreds of questions,” Zoldak told his students, according to a criminal complaint.

When a student asked why he was questioned, Zoldak pointed to the girl and said, “Because of her,” police said.

Police said Zoldak, who teaches forensics in the science department, then summoned the girl to the front of the class and asked if she would “be OK” with next week’s class topic: sexual assault.

Zoldak’s actions sent a “chilling message,” Houser said.

If the allegations are true, the teacher contributed to a hostile, victim-blaming environment that could prevent other victims from coming forward, she said.

Justice Department research shows that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthdays, officials said.

“I am absolutely appalled at the actions of that teacher — pulling that young woman up in front of class and outing her,” Houser said. “This is why so many people don’t come forward, why they don’t report: They are afraid. When you have an environment where people feel it’s OK to shame victims, it sends a chilling message.”

Advocates questioned the wisdom of holding a school assembly at which Plum police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong, high school principal Ryan Kociela and school resource Officer Joe Little warned students not to talk about the case on social media or risk arrest.

Armstrong said he wanted to prevent further witness intimidation, but many students and their parents took it as a threat.

“The intent may have gotten lost. That’s certainly my hope,” said Cindy Snyder, clinical director of Center for Victims. “Schools need to create a system where when kids are abused and sexually assaulted, they are in an environment where they feel comfortable talking about it. Sometimes that is tricky. One misstep can have significant consequences.”

Preventive steps

Those relationships are important because schools are not equipped to handle sex scandals — nor should they be, officials said.

“Their mission is about providing an education and maintaining a safe environment where education can happen,” Houser said. “But this school seems to have a rather hostile environment. After everything this state has gone through (with the Sandusky case), to have a high school that is behaving this way is unconscionable.”

Institutions must take preventive steps before scandals occur — not after — officials said, because the next one is inevitable.

“This is not something that is happening every now and then. This happens a lot,” said Toya Jones, child and family therapist at Center for Victims.

Victims can spend a lifetime recovering, Docherty said.

“I’ve done a tremendous amount of healing,” Docherty said. “I’m in a better place, and I’m able to help others and talk about it now, but it’s taken many years to get there. It’s always difficult for me when I hear these things going on. It’s depressing. I think, ‘Has it changed at all?’ ”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer.


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