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Plum SB member says he warned administrators of inappropriate contact

JoeTommarello
Lillian DeDomenic | For Trib Total Media
Plum School Board member Joseph Tommarello claims he warned administrators years ago of inappropriate contact between a student and a high school teacher now charged with sex crimes. Tommarello resigned from the board on June 8, 2015.

Former Plum school board member Joseph Tommarello said he told the school superintendent three years ago about inappropriate contact between English teacher Joseph Ruggieri and student – and told him again last year.

Superintendent Timothy Glasspool told him, “This would not be the first time he will have had to have a conversation with Mr. Ruggieri about inappropriate contact with students,” Tommarello said.

When he heard nothing back, Tommarello said he believed it meant there was nothing to be found.

“It’s disgusting to think that a teacher has some kind of relationship like this with a student and nothing gets done about it,” Tommarello said in an interview with the Tribune-Review Monday.

Tommarello resigned from the board on Friday immediately following the school’s graduation ceremony, citing a lack of faith in both the board and the administration, as well as disgust with the district’s lack of action when faced with rumors and allegations in previous years.

Glasspool responded via email saying: “To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Tommarello reported one incident. That incident was investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.” He referred all other questions to Plum Borough Police, saying “Discussing critical case details in the public forum may adversely impact the ongoing investigations.”

Tommarello is the first Plum official to break the silence surrounding the scandal, which drew national attention with the arrests of two high school teachers for sexual misconduct with female students and the arrest of a third for intimidating a victim in a classroom. District officials have denied any wrongdoing.

A retired Air Force major and former JROTC instructor at Plum High School emailed school board members three days after police arrested Ruggieri, warning the board that the district has a problem that “runs much deeper” than one case. He said he warned district officials two years ago about Ruggieri’s possible inappropriate behavior with female students.

In response to Tommarello’s assertions, the school district posted a statement on its website.

“Mr. Tommarello’s resignation letter contains information that is unsubstantiated and not completely factual. In fact, while his letter claims that he informed the District several years ago about a possible inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, he does not disclose that an immediate investigation took place and the student and family dismissed the allegations as false.”

An Allegheny County grand jury is investigating whether as many as eight female students were victims of sexual abuse over the course of as many years, according to court records.

Ruggieri, 40, and Science teacher Jason Cooper, 38, are both charged in separate incidents with institutional sexual assault, accused of having sex with two different female students. Both, as well as third teacher Drew Zoldak, 40, are also charged with witness intimidation.

“You don’t want a school administrator or superintendent to do an investigation,” said Cathy Utz, acting deputy secretary for the Office of Children Youth/Families in Harrisburg. “It is not their responsibility to do an investigation to find out whether abuse or a crime occurred. It could compromise a criminal investigation. People could potentially cover something up.”

State victim advocate Jennifer Storm agreed, but said such internal investigations are common.

“I’ve definitely heard of schools doing this, but often with disastrous results,” said Storm.

Storm said biases – intentional or not – can color the lens through which administrators view the allegations.

“It’s always better to get the local authorities involved,” she said.

Tommarello said he approached Glasspool in fall 2012 with concerns a female student and friend had brought to him regarding what she called an ongoing relationship with Ruggieri.

“She said that it had been going on and she wanted it to end – and that she didn’t know what to do about it,” Tommarello said. “Me, now a school board member, I did what I believe was the right thing to do and (went) to the superintendent of the school district.”

Tommarello was elected shortly after he graduated from Plum, having run on a platform of being a voice on the board for the students.

He said Glasspool told him he would look into it, but he heard nothing back and assumed Glasspool had found no merit to the claims.

Tommarello said he approached Glasspool again in fall 2014 with rumors he had heard regarding Ruggieri and a different female student. He said Glasspool told him he had not heard those rumors, nor had any police or parents come to him with concerns.

“The superintendent is the one that runs the school district,” Tommarello said. “He is the leader, and I believe that I was doing the right thing and going to the right person. Looking back to then, if I knew the administration was not going to do anything about it, I would have gone to the police first.”

Tommarello said the matter was dropped until Ruggieri was arrested.

He said the victim in the charges against Ruggieri is the same student he mentioned to Glasspool last year.

Tommarello said he questioned Glasspool in an executive session board meeting. He said Glasspool told him there had been no complaining witness or victim, and therefore there was no information to work with.

Tommarello subsequently spoke with Plum Detective Mark Focareta, who was handling the investigation at the time, he said, and told the detective of his previous attempts to raise the issue with administrators.

Tommarello said Plum police have not questioned him since then, nor has he been contacted by the district attorney’s office or subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury. Police did advise him, as a board member, not to speak publicly about his interview, lest he be charged with obstruction of justice, he said.

Board member Michelle Stepnick said she remembers that Tommarello brought up something during an executive session in February following Ruggieri’s arrest about Tommarello previously informing administration about Ruggieri and possible inappropriate contact with female students.

“He said something,” Stepnick said. “I don’t remember the conversation. There were a lot of questions, and I left (the executive session) because I got extremely upset.”

Stepnick said that during another subsequent executive session board members were told that an allegation of inappropriate contact between Ruggieri and a student had been investigated and “the student and parents denied it.”

“If (Tommarello) felt like he knew something, why didn’t he stick around and help fix things?” Stepnick asked.

Plum School Board President Sal Colella expressed disappointment in Tommarello in the board’s official release.

“It is unfortunate that Mr. Tommarello has chosen this moment to resign from this Board as he requested, and was then appointed, to help lead the District’s newly formed Safety & Supportive Schools Committee to address student safety issues, including those the District is currently facing,” Colella said. But he added, “We are not completely surprised… as he has only attended four of the past 22 school board meetings since February 1, 2015.”

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. has said he fears there are more victims and that school administrators may have known of abuse and done nothing.

“It makes me emotional and upset knowing that I did what I could three years ago, but yet since then, allegedly more victims have happened because of a lack of action,” Tommarello said.

Tommarello said the situation hits especially close to home because – until Friday – his sister attended Plum High School.

“These are her friends that these things are happening to, and when she comes home and she’s crying because she doesn’t understand why these things are happening – it really affects me,” he said.

“So I no longer wanted any part of the remaining silent, the corruption, the lack of action and leadership,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it anymore. I have more integrity than that.”

Tommarello recently won his Republican primary election, and his name is currently on the ballot for the general election in November.

Plum solicitor Lee Price said the board will hold a special meeting Wednesday, June 10, at 6:00 p.m. to formally accept Tommarello’s resignation and determine the required actions necessary to fill his seat on the board.

Megan Guza and Karen Zapf are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Guza at 412-380-8519 or [email protected]. Reach Zapf at 412-871-2367 or [email protected].

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