PLUM (KDKA) – Three teachers in the Plum Area School District are facing charges — two of them for allegedly having inappropriate relationships with students.
Now, some students think officials are trying to take away their freedom of speech by not allowing them to talk about the cases. There are concerns being raised by the ACLU as well.
KDKA’s Harold Hayes Reports:
However, police say they are trying to stop the harassment of the alleged victims on social media.
KDKA learned that members of the school board met for an executive session Monday night for over two hours to discuss how the district handled the controversial student assembly Friday. That meeting was held behind closed doors with no comments made to the public or media.
There is a regular school board meeting Tuesday night. There is a public comment session on the agenda.
On Monday morning, students stood outside Plum High School to protest after an assembly at the school Friday, where students were told that they could be arrested or charged for commenting, in particular on social media, about the ongoing investigations.
“I don’t feel like I should be charged criminally as a person for giving my opinion to people,” Jordan Townsend said.
“It’s not right to tell us we can’t state our opinions on something and try and take our freedom away,” Tianna Trenchfield said.
On Wednesday, a third Plum teacher, 40-year-old Drew Zoldak, was charged with trying to intimidate an 18-year-old student who a fellow teacher is accused of having sex with.
He is accused of exposing the identity of the alleged victim in the Joseph Ruggieri case to her classmates while she was present.
That teacher, 40-year-old Joseph Ruggieri, was arrested in February and accused of also trying to intimidate the victim several times using FaceTime.
KDKA’s Heather Abraham Reports:
Police Chief Jeff Armstrong said Friday, that’s exactly what he wants to students to be careful of.
He said that the assemblies were not meant to limit free speech, but to warn that students could be intimidating witnesses or victims in their comments or posts.
“They need to think before they post and that these posts could have ramifications that while they certainly may not intend them to be malicious, they could actually constitute a crime,” Chief Armstrong said.
The district attorney has also issued a statement in response saying, “It would not be prudent for us to comment on what was said in the assembly (Friday) until we have a chance to speak with Chief Armstrong in order to determine what he was trying to accomplish with his remarks. Having said that, we have no indication at this point in the investigation that either the student victims or student witnesses have been on the receiving end of threatening or harassing communications from other students.”
The ACLU also got involved, and demanded that the school and police hold another assembly to clarify that students have First Amendment rights and that they will not be arrested for comments.
The ACLU threatened to get an order from a federal judge if the demands are not met.
Superintendent Timothy Glasspool released a statement today regarding the issue:
“It is the position of the Plum Borough School District that the District will not take actions that infringe upon the First Amendment rights of its students or staff with respect to their use of social media. The District will not prevent or inhibit any individuals from engaging in constitutionally protected speech. The comments made at the assembly were not intended to infringe upon any First Amendment rights. It is not the District’s intent to prosecute or discipline any students for exercising those rights to the extent they are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Be assured that the intent of the assembly was to provide protection to all of our students. We would again urge that all individuals refrain from engaging in any irresponsible, harassing and/or intimidating communications with respect to the ongoing investigations.”
The ACLU later released a statement in response to say it accepted the Superintendent’s clarification letter, stating:
“While more cryptic than we would have liked, the ACLU-PA accepts the Plum Borough School District’s clarification that students have the right to speak about the ongoing investigations. Students should know that so long as they don’t disrupt classes or create a significant and material disruption in the school, they have the right to talk about the ongoing investigation, which is a matter of public concern. That means they are free to discuss the issue in the hallways, the lunchroom, during non-instructional time in the classroom, or while on school buses. Students also have a right to discuss the matter outside of school and on social media.”
Previously, Jason Cooper, 38, was arrested in February on charges he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with an 18-year-old female student.
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