PITTSBURGH (AP) – A teenager testified she left Plum High School abruptly last year after a teacher identified her as the student who had accused another teacher of having an illegal sexual relationship with her.
The witness, now a 19-year-old college student, testified Thursday that she hadn’t told fellow students about her relationship with Plum High School teacher Joseph Ruggieri before the teacher on trial, Drew Zoldak, pointed her out in class.READ MORE: Man Dies After Falling From Overpass In Hopewell Township
Zoldak, who is suspended from the school, has denied knowingly trying to intimidate the student from testifying against Ruggieri. Ruggieri pleaded guilty this year and was sentenced to two to five years in prison for institutional sexual assault, a crime that makes it illegal for teachers to have sex with students, regardless of their ages.
The witness testified that Zoldak missed class one Friday in April 2015 and was asked why by a student the following Monday.
That’s when Zoldak told the class, “Men in suits from the DA’s office came to my home to interview me,” the witness testified Thursday.
When asked why, Zoldak “head-motioned backward and pointed at me and said, ‘Because of her,'” she testified.
The witness, then a senior, said she remained in class, then went to a study hall before calling her mother and asking to be picked up from school. She never returned, skipping her graduation. She testified her prom date dumped her because “he didn’t want to be embarrassed by me” so she skipped the dance, too.
The district attorney’s office has charged two other male Plum teachers with having sex with female students. One teacher has pleaded guilty and is serving 1 1/2 to 3 years in prison; the other is awaiting trial.
Zoldak has never been accused of having sex with students. But the district attorney’s office, which also convened a grand jury investigation to determine whether teachers and administrators properly vetted complaints of teacher-student sex, contends his comments were intended to dissuade the witness from testifying against Ruggieri, the teacher’s union vice president.READ MORE: Pitt Panthers 'Peach Bowl Bound,' Playing Against Michigan State
Zoldak’s attorney, Alexander Lindsay Jr., has said Zoldak didn’t intimidate the teenager because even if he made the comments they weren’t intended to discourage her testimony against Ruggieri.
But the witness testified that’s how the comments made her feel.
“I felt like I was doing the wrong thing by being honest,” she said. “I instantly started crying and told the detectives I didn’t want to do this.”
Lindsay was expected to cross-examine the witness later Thursday.
The grand jury determined the school’s principal and the district’s superintendent should have done more when confronted with previous rumors about Ruggieri, some of them dating to 2007. But because mandatory child-abuse reporting laws have changed since then, the grand jury concluded they didn’t break the law.
Those administrators haven’t commented, but they have been suspended with pay while the district investigates.Local Kids Battling Illness Featured In Nonprofit's Superhero Calendar
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