Behind the Zimmerman case

What causes the Pennsylvania Department of Education to suddenly investigate a teacher who was accused of inappropriate conduct 14 years ago?

The DOE wouldn’t talk to PublicSource about their investigation of David Scott Zimmerman, but we have a feeling it may have been a story we wrote.

And we have to thank the readers who contacted us following that initial story.

Last spring, PublicSource reporters Halle Stockton and Bill Heltzel spent weeks examining the case of David Scott Zimmerman, a former high school teacher and coach from O’Hara who was fired for inappropriate conduct with athletes in 1999. The story was published in June, just before the start of the child sexual abuse trial of former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The Zimmerman story was a case study of the many factors that can influence such cases and how schools often ‘pass the trash,’ or allow teachers to simply move on when these events occur instead of calling the police.

In the days following publication, the mother of one of the students who complained about  Zimmerman called to thank us, wondering why other media outlets she had contacted hadn’t pursued the story. 

And we moved on to other work.

That’s the nature of journalism. Most stories fade from public awareness as quickly as newsprint fades to yellow. Or, these days, as quickly as one online story is replaced by another.

But online readers of PublicSource kept coming back to us with new story tips.

In December, a Chicago man saw a link to our story as he scrolled through news on the Sandusky case. He had recently worked with Zimmerman as a volunteer for a Florida youth group.

Was the David Zimmerman in our story the same David Zimmerman working with the Florida group? he asked. And did we stand by our story?

After some more digging, we found it was the same man. And, yes, we stood by our story.

That contact led us to a group of people in Joplin, Mo., who had tried in 2011 to figure out why Zimmerman, from Pittsburgh, was offering to help them recover from a devastating tornado. But working with sketchy information, they were unable to find out anything about Zimmerman’s background.

They were angry when they learned about Zimmerman’s past from the original PublicSource story.

In early April, we published a second story, this time about Zimmerman working with the youth group. After that story, a man who had played basketball for Zimmerman years ago emailed us to say he’d been contacted by the state DOE about the coach who, 14 years before, was forced to quit his job but allowed to keep his teaching license.

After receiving the education department’s inquiry, he went straight to Google, where the PublicSource story was the first thing that popped up.

How, he asked when he talked with reporter Heltzel, is it possible that this man still has a teaching license?

The DOE investigator told him that the state is currently trying to suspend or revoke Zimmerman’s teaching license.

PublicSource’s potential audience is vast simply because people can search the Internet and find our stories long after they have been published.

Thanks to these two readers, we received information that allowed us to produce stories we wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

Journalism is still a perishable product, but the shelf life of stories has been extended. And you, the reader, help us to move our stories forward by sharing your knowledge.

Reach Sharon Walsh at 412-681-5685 or at swalsh@publicsource.org.