Plum seniors move on after tumultuous year
Rain clouds and an ongoing criminal investigation could not dampen the spirits of 309 seniors who graduated from Plum High School on Friday night.
“It’s over,” senior class president Michael Bell said to a gymnasium audience brimming with nervous excitement. “We did it.”
The ceremony marked the end of a school year in which three teachers were charged criminally, two with sex crimes involving students, and other staff members were stuck under the cloud of a grand jury investigation into whether they knew about inappropriate relationships and did nothing.
“I expected it to be a normal school year, not a year with three teachers getting arrested,” said Rhiannon McCune, a freshman.
Plum sits on the south bank of the Allegheny River, 13 miles east of Pittsburgh. It is Allegheny County’s largest borough at 29 square miles, and its population has continued to grow since the 1960s — to 27,126 in 2010.
The school district, which serves about 4,100 students, traces its roots to the early 19th century. Its travails this year have attracted national attention.
The tumult began Feb. 11 when high school science teacher Jason Cooper, 38, was arrested and charged with institutional sexual assault and corruption of minors.
Six days later, English teacher Joseph Ruggieri, 40, was arrested on similar charges in a separate incident, and investigators are looking at as many as eight victims between the two cases.
Both were charged with witness intimidation when police said the teachers contacted the accusers.
On April 22, 40-year-old science teacher Drew Zoldak was charged with witness intimidation when police said he singled out Ruggieri’s alleged victim during his forensic science class, including asking her if she would “be OK with” the next week’s subject: sexual assault.
The Friday after Zoldak was charged, police and some administrators held a schoolwide assembly at which they urged students not to discuss the investigation, including on social media, lest they face criminal charges.
Plum police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong said the assembly’s message to students was to refrain from harassing victims.
An audio recording proved differently, and the American Civil Liberties Union, concerned about students’ free speech rights, issued an ultimatum to the district: Clarify the statements or deal with a civil lawsuit.
That Monday, some students protested, saying the message infringed upon their First Amendment rights. The district and the police complied with the ACLU’s demands.
Mark Carney called the assembly “the low point in all of this.” His son Austen graduated Friday.
Last month, detectives with the district attorney’s office executed search warrants for electronic and physical files at Plum High School.
Teacher Dennis Swogger, whose concerns sparked the investigation into Cooper, according to a criminal complaint, and Scott Kolar, the former JROTC instructor who says he voiced concerns about Ruggieri to administrators years ago, were seen entering the grand jury location in Dormont last month.
District officials made the call late Friday morning to move the graduation ceremony from the football stadium to the high school gym with the threat of rain forecast. Tickets were required to enter the gym, and those left without tickets watched the ceremony via live stream in the auditorium.
Superintendent Timothy Glasspool and principal Ryan Kociela spoke to the class, as well as Bell and student council president Michael McGuire, and two chosen by officials as the class’s outstanding seniors: Emily Matisko and Kyle Simqu.
Kociela noted achievements of the senior class, including much improved attendance and standardized test scores and academic and sports successes.
“When someone asks you what’s going on in Plum, share these accomplishments — share your accomplishments,” he said.
For some students, the allegations, investigations and scandal overshadowed those accomplishments.
Senior Alexandra Pursh called graduation “a relief.”
“It was a different year,” she said. “It was a good year, but it’s good to get it over with.”
Peggy Hagood graduated from Plum in 1979, and her daughter, Katie, graduated Friday night. She said she suspects the administration turned a blind eye to the abuses.
“I believe the administration had to have known what was going on,” she said. “The school district is good at sweeping it under the rug.”
Bill Chapla has a son in the high school. He criticized district and high school administrators, indicating he believes Glasspool, assistant superintendent Guy Rossi, Kociela and assistant principals Shannon Crombie and Rachel Gattuso should be fired.
McCune said the shock of the arrests was a distraction for students.
But some said things have quieted down.
“People don’t really talk about it anymore,” sophomore Theodore Jeannette said. Hagood said the most damage was to her daughter’s attitude toward the district.
“She used to like going to school,” Hagwood said. “(She is) counting the days down to get out of there.”