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Plum School District Adopts New Teacher-Student Contact Policy

PLUM (KDKA/AP) - A school district where three teachers are awaiting trial on charges they had sexual relationships with students adopted a policy that spells out limitations on student-teacher contact, including social media and other electronic ways of communication.

Before the policy was put into place, Plum officials spoke on this year's event and the need for a new policy to be put into place.

"With the light of this past year, this has certainly put this on the forefront and not just for us, but for all school districts," said Michele Gallagher, a school board member.

The Plum School Board voted 7-0 Tuesday night to approve the policy, which applies to employees, coaches, volunteers, student teachers and independent contractors who interact with students.

It states that "students of any age are not legally capable of consenting to romantic or sexual interactions with adults."

That's an issue because one of the teachers charged with having a sexual relationship has argued that it wasn't illegal because the student was 18 by the time they had sex. Allegheny County prosecutors contend that teacher began "grooming" that student for the sexual relationship by kissing her and having other inappropriate conduct with her before she was an adult.

Whether that particular criminal charge stands the scrutiny of the criminal process, Plum officials wanted to spell out what's appropriate- and what's not - when teachers and other adult staff communicate with students.

The policy "outlines what might seem obvious to most," board president Sal Colella said. "However, we cannot take for granted that anyone will practice or adhere to obvious regulations when it comes to the interaction between adults and students."

It also expressly prohibits "dating, courting, or entering into or attempting to form a romantic or sexual relationship with any student enrolled in the district."

The new policy prohibits employee-student communication through texting and social media. It also requires emails be sent on school-provided devices whenever possible and that messages from coaches or advisers be sent only to groups of students, not individuals. Finally, any messages sent must be for a legitimate educational or extracurricular purpose.

The teachers were charged separately and none of the criminal cases relates to the others. However, a fourth teacher has been charged with witness intimidation for allegedly pointing out a female student who accused one of the other teachers during a class discussion.

Michael Cinefra, a former substitute teacher at Plum, was the latest to get charged in connection with sex crimes in the Plum School District last month. Before Cinefra was charged, Joseph Ruggieri and Jason Cooper were charged with institutional sex assault and witness intimidation. Drew Zoldak was accused of calling out one of the alleged victims in a class.

The policy was modeled after one developed weeks ago by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Association spokesman Steve Robinson said it appears Plum is one of the first in the state to adopt the policy since the PSBA's annual leadership conference earlier this month.

"We have to heal and move on as a whole community," Plum school board member Michelle Stepnick said. "And this is one step in that direction."

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