3rd Plum high school teacher charged in connection with student-sex case
Police on Wednesday arrested a third Plum High School teacher, accusing him of intimidating a student in front of a class by singling her out as a girl who had sex with another teacher.
Police stated in a criminal complaint that Drew Zoldak, 40, of Allegheny Township pointed to the student during a class and identified her as a victim of English teacher and former union vice president Joseph Ruggieri.
When Ruggieri was charged Feb. 17 with having sex with a student, the girl’s name was not made public, police said.
The arrest of Zoldak on two charges of intimidating a witness or victim occurred shortly after a district judge ordered Plum chemistry teacher Jason Cooper to stand trial on charges he had sex with a different student.
“Right now, after the third teacher being arrested, I don’t believe it is a safe environment for students,” said Bill Chapla, the parent of a Plum High School junior. He suggested the state Department of Education run the school district “until the investigation is over and we get to the bottom of who knew what and when.”
Zoldak’s classroom, according to students, is across the hallway from Cooper’s.
“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 third-period class on Monday, according to the 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.
Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, said the incident is “appalling.”
“This can have huge ramifications. Many victims already don’t think they’re going to be believed,” Hall said. “Generally, where there’s one victim, there are many, many more victims who potentially may not come forward because of what they’re experiencing, let alone what they see others going through.”
Plum police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong said witnesses should not be “subjected to this sort of behavior. I think we’ve shown that in the three witness intimidation charges filed.” Police earlier charged Cooper and Ruggieri with witness intimidation, accusing them of contacting students.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office said the charges against Zoldak “are of great concern.”
“At the very least, they involve conduct which is extraordinarily insensitive to the rights of a child victim by a person who, by virtue of his profession, is obligated to protect that child, and at worst, it is an intentional effort to use this child’s peers and the school setting to make her uncomfortable and keep her from speaking freely about her victimization,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Zoldak misrepresented his interview because he was questioned by women, the complaint said, and he implied to the investigators that the girl is partly to blame for the charges against Ruggieri because “it takes two to tango.”
In a letter to parents posted to the school website, Plum Superintendent Timothy Glasspool said Zoldak, whose salary is $59,500, was suspended with pay.
Ruggieri is suspended without pay; Cooper resigned from his teaching job days before his arrest.
Glasspool called the charges “very concerning and of a sensitive nature” and urged “individuals not involved with the ongoing investigations to refrain from public comment and speculation.”
Ed Helbling, whose two daughters are high school students, said he is “livid” about what he called poor decision-making in the district.
“Someone turned off the intelligence switch in Plum Borough if you are an elected official,” he said. “It is a complete mess.”
Helbling said he is disturbed that the three teachers apparently “felt under the supervision of the school they could get away with it. It is embarrassing.”
District Judge Linda Zucco set an April 29 preliminary hearing for Zoldak during an 11:30 a.m. arraignment.
An hour earlier, Zucco held for court charges of institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors, furnishing alcohol and witness intimidation against Cooper.
Cooper’s alleged victim, an 18-year-old Plum senior, testified that she had class with Cooper her sophomore year. After that, she said, she spent study hall periods in his classroom. She said they became physically involved after she turned 18 in January. They once kissed in his classroom, she said.
From there, she said, “We went on with our relationship.”
She said she went once to his home while his wife and children were not there. He gave her Long Island iced tea and they “hung out.” She spent the night, she said, but they did not have sex until the day she helped him move into his apartment.
The Tribune-Review does not name alleged victims of sex crimes.
Accompanied by her father’s girlfriend and a victim advocate, she answered questions matter-of-factly in a small courtroom full of news media and police. She said when Cooper called her in mid-February, after his arrest, he asked whether things were OK at home.
“He didn’t ask what I was going to say (in court),” she said. “He said he would try to make it easy for me.”
Cooper’s attorney, Michael DeRiso, called the relationship inappropriate but not criminal. He argued the state’s institutional sexual assault law applies only to minors.
“If I’m married and my wife teaches at (University of Pittsburgh) and I’m a law student, every time we’re having sex — hopefully — she’s committing a felony,” he argued as an example.
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it will be up to a court to decide whether DeRiso’s argument is valid.
“Certainly, there’s not a court case that supports that interpretation,” he said. “On the other hand, the way in which law is made in the United States is through challenges to … statutes with these kinds of hypotheticals.”
Assistant District Attorney Evan Lowry said Cooper began “grooming” the student before she turned 18.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape describes grooming as the process used to gain the trust of a child, and possibly the child’s family, leading up to child sexual abuse.
“When the sex happens is irrelevant,” Lowry said. “The grooming is the beginning.”
“Unless I blacked out or missed something,” DeRiso said, “I heard nothing of any grooming.”