Students at Plum High School in Pittsburgh, PA organized a protest this morning in response to the way in which school officials and local police have been dealing with an ongoing sexual assault scandal that plagues the school. According to The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, around two dozen students launched a demonstration in front of the school while others wore tape over their mouths to protest comments made by police and school officials at an assembly last Friday. As the above-embedded footage by WPXI-TV notes, students were told at the assembly that they could face criminal charges if they discuss on social media an ongoing investigation into institutional sexual assault allegations that had been raised against two of the school’s teachers, Jason Cooper and Joseph Ruggieri. The Patriot-News pointed out the fact that Ruggieri also serves as vice president of the local teacher’s union. The assembly took place under 24 hours after Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. asked victims at the school to come forward.
14-year-old freshman Amber Stawecki told The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, “It’s wrong for the school to take away our freedom of speech. We know what the First Amendment is. In some ways I still feel like they are trying to shut us up. I can tell they know more. It looks like a cover-up.”
Another student, 15-year-old freshman Cody Stockman referred to the comments at the assembly as “scare tactics” and said, “The fact that the chief of police was there is ridiculous. The police department lost its credibility.”
Plum Police Chief Jeffrey Armstrong said that, by speaking at the assembly, he was trying to prevent students from harassing victims of the sexual assaults, not interfere with free speech. “The intent of the assembly was not to tell kids not to use social media, but to be careful about the content and context of social media. We wanted to get out in front of this. The witnesses and the victims to an outpouring of hate and other comments directed to them.”
The District Attorney’s office issued a statement on the assembly, which said, “It would not be prudent for us to comment on what was said in the assembly 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.” However, another teacher at the school, Drew Zoldak, was charged last Wednesday with attempting to intimidate one of the other teacher’s alleged victims.
According to CBS Pittsburgh, Plum Borough School District Superintendent Timothy Glasspool said in a statement, “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.”