June 4, 2012: A correction has been made to this article.
A ninth-grade boy at Pittsburgh’s Vincentian High School had a secret. He’d changed a grade on his report card, but soon his basketball coach discovered the deceit. For weeks, the coach summoned him from gym class and the cafeteria to his office, where he prodded: What would the boy do for the coach to keep the secret?
Finally, the coach, according to court documents, gave the boy three choices: Masturbate in front of the coach, stand on his head and pee or get paddled with a plank. He chose the beating. The coach stood the boy against a chalkboard, splayed his legs, and hit him with a 2-by-4. The coach then pulled down the boy’s pants to see the welts.
When the boy and his parents told school officials what happened, the principal doubted the story, but offered to change the boy's schedule to avoid the coach’s English class.
“That’s what her offer was, and I’m like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’” the boy later told police about the 1995 incident with coach David Scott Zimmerman, then 28. “I’m leaving school. I can’t take this anymore.”
The Vincentian principal dropped her inquiry and Zimmerman continued to coach and teach.
The issues in the Zimmerman case are fresh more than a decade later as the June 5 trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky approaches. Sandusky was indicted in November on 52 counts of criminal abuse. He is charged with molesting 10 boys over 15 years.
The Sandusky case became a national cause célèbre and triggered widespread debate on how to protect children from sexual predators.
The attention brought by the Sandusky case will pass. The problem of sexual abuse in schools will not.
David Scott Zimmerman’s case is a cautionary tale about what happens when certain patterns of behavior are not recognized and reported.
Another boy described abusive sexual conduct by Zimmerman to school officials — three years after the 1995 incident involving the first boy. Vincentian officials immediately suspended Zimmerman, notified police and the county prosecutor, and started their own investigation. Ultimately, 13 boys told police of sexual behavior by Zimmerman. This time, a public scandal engulfed the Catholic high school.
Court proceedings show that the school made a deal with Zimmerman to keep quiet about his dismissal if he absolved the school of liability. He also kept his teaching license.
A proposed Pennsylvania law would make confidential deals like the one between Zimmerman and Vincentian impossible. Other states have already acted. Oregon recently passed a law that could make it easier to recognize sexual misconduct. The law, cited as a model, could stop abuse in its early stages. Recent changes in Oregon law were made because of the Sandusky case, officials said.
As policymakers consider a response, teachers, parents and students can be alert to recognize classic “grooming” patterns that are precursors to the sexual abuse of children. Another effective step, experts say, is to ban the practice of “passing the trash,” a phrase that describes when a suspected school employee is allowed to resign quietly and without consequences.
“You can stop a lot of this behavior,” said Charol Shakeshaft, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies sexual abuse.
One of every 10 students becomes a target of sexual misconduct that includes such behavior as unwanted sexual comments, inappropriate touching, and even rape, Shakeshaft said.
Yet only about 6 percent of child sexual-abuse cases are reported to authorities, and teachers are seldom punished when caught, according to her 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Education.
Nightmares and silence
One boy who played for Zimmerman never played organized sports again. Even in college he suffered from nightmares. In one, he told police in 1999, Zimmerman “had this ball and it was like full of razor blades and he kept throwing it at me, trying to get me.”
The details of Zimmerman’s actions come from criminal and civil documents filed in the Allegheny County courts over the years. PublicSource does not name the victims of sexual crimes.
Zimmerman inherited a team with a 45-game losing streak when he was hired in 1993, and went on to compile a 78-48 record and take the Vincentian Royals to the regional Class A championship in 1998.
He insisted on a code of silence with the team. Boys were told, “What happens at practice, stays at practice,” according to court documents.
Zimmerman, called “Zim” by students, was forced to resign from Vincentian in 1998. According to court documents, he:
- Used explicit language, and goaded players into calling a freshman the “team slut,” a “fag” and other sexually derogatory terms;
- Took boys out of study hall to his office and peppered them with questions about their sex lives;
- Encouraged boys to slap each other’s testicles, an initiation rite referred to as “duping”;
- Showed boys adult pornography at his Pittsburgh apartment;
- Pushed a boy’s head into the groin of another player as Zimmerman squeezed water from a bottle to simulate ejaculation, and forced a player to lick cupcake icing off his finger;
- Rested a hand on a boy’s penis while going to sleep in a dorm room at a basketball camp.
In 1990, Zimmerman had cleared mandatory child abuse and criminal background checks -- as all Pennsylvania teachers must -- from the Department of Welfare, state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the time Vincentian hired him, he had substituted or coached for at least five other schools. The Vincentian principal said in a deposition that Zimmerman’s references and prior employers were not contacted.
Zimmerman denied abuse allegations when police interviewed him in January 1999. He said he engaged in horseplay with players and conceded that he could have supervised them better. The Allegheny County District Attorney dropped a simple assault charge, and Zimmerman pleaded guilty to corruption of minors, a misdemeanor. He was put on probation for a year and ordered not to work with children.
As a result of the Vincentian players' allegations, police searched Zimmerman’s Pittsburgh apartment. They found hundreds of images of child erotica, computer-generated images of boys engaged in sexual activity, and catalogs offering videotapes of teenage boys engaged in sex. He pleaded guilty in federal court to possession of child pornography, but the case was overturned on appeal because of an improper search warrant.
When PublicSource called the home listed in records as Zimmerman’s address, a man who identified himself as Zimmerman’s brother said he would convey a request for an interview. Zimmerman did not return two telephone calls.
PublicSource also sent a letter to Zimmerman’s address asking for an interview. There was no response.
Defense attorney Robert Mielnicki described his client as immature. “He was in his late 20s and was hanging around with 18-year-olds” and “was acting like an 18-year-old,” Mielnicki said.
In 2008, Zimmerman, then 41, was arrested in Harmar Township and charged with sexual assault of a 20-year-old man he had met that day. On the day of his trial, an assistant district attorney dropped four felonies and added a misdemeanor assault charge. Zimmerman pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation.
Clear warning signs
Coaches or teachers suspected of abuse tend to single out students for special treatment, lavishing them with attention and rewards. They become unusually close to children, finding ways to spend time with them privately in school and on trips outside of school.
Recognizing these techniques and reporting them are the keys to stopping predators from abusing children, experts say.
Instead, Shakeshaft said, colleagues overlook these behaviors. Educators tend to give colleagues the benefit of the doubt and question the truthfulness of students. Schools often agree not to report allegations to police and education authorities if the employee agrees not to sue. The employee is then free to retire or seek a new job, and the public and the next employer are kept in the dark.
In June 1995, Sister Camille Panich, the principal, rated Zimmerman’s performance unsatisfactory. She cited him for taking students out of study hall and into his office, embarrassing players in front of the team and being overly involved in players’ personal lives. She put him under closer scrutiny for the 1995-96 school year.
A month later, the ninth-grader accused Zimmerman of misconduct. Sister Camille dropped her inquiry after consulting with officials at the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
“I did what I was advised to do,” she said.
That fall, Duquesne University affiliated with the high school, and it was renamed Vincentian Academy. Derek Whordley, then dean of the Duquesne School of Education, became president.
Whordley eventually became concerned about disrespectful behavior and improper language by Zimmerman. He drafted a letter in 1997 telling him to resign or be fired, and gave the letter to Sister Camille, but not to Zimmerman.
But in 1997, Whordley was succeeded by Timothy Rusnak, as academy president. Rusnak rehired Zimmerman as coach, recruiter and fundraiser but did not renew his contract to teach English.
Vincentian forced Zimmerman to resign in December 1998, after a second group of boys complained. The following month, Vincentian agreed not to comment on the coach’s separation from the school. Zimmerman would absolve Duquesne of liability arising out of his employment. He was not required to surrender his teaching license.
The reason for his dismissal remained secret for three months, until McCandless police charged him with simple assault and corruption of minors.
"When Duquesne University first became aware of a complaint that was sexual in nature, immediate action was taken to suspend Zimmerman and local police were notified," said Bridget Fare, a spokeswoman for Duquesne.
Background not checked
Lawmakers across the country have passed or proposed measures that would make that kind of deal illegal.
Pennsylvania could be next. State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, introduced a law in November that would ban secret separation agreements, require schools to disclose allegations of sexual abuse when asked for a reference by another school and ban teachers from forfeiting their licenses to avoid discipline.
Williams began drafting the law well before the Sandusky case, after reading about sexual abuse in schools outside of Pennsylvania. “I thought it was crazy and thought ‘that cannot be happening in Pennsylvania.’ Indeed it can be happening and is happening. It’s a national problem.”
The state's proposal is based on a 2010 Oregon law, considered the most comprehensive in the country. It requires that faculty and staff members of public and private schools get annual training on the prevention and identification of child abuse and sexual conduct and on their duty to report.
The law requires schools to check with an applicant’s previous three scholastic employers for ongoing or substantiated reports of child abuse or sexual conduct.
“There really was an interest in ratcheting down those loopholes, and a criminal history alone just doesn’t take care of it,” said Rep. Sara Gelser, the Democratic co-chair of the Oregon State House Education Committee.
In response to the Sandusky case, Oregon expanded its list of mandated reporters in February to include higher education, from administrators and coaches to maintenance workers and bookkeepers. They referred to it as the "Penn State bill."
“We probably would not have succeeded in making that change without the unfortunate events in Pennsylvania,” Gelser said.
Those who fail to report child abuse in Oregon face a $1,000 fine. Under Pennsylvania's current law, a failure to report carries a fine of $200 and up to 90 days in jail.
Following the Zimmerman case, Vincentian revised its policies. Faculty, staff and volunteers are supposed to report problematic behaviors, and students are encouraged to “stand up for what they know is right,” said Diane Curtis, a spokeswoman for the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, now affiliated with Vincentian. References and previous employers are also checked for new hires, she said.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has required school employees since 2003 to take an annual program called “Protecting God’s Children,” which teaches awareness of crimes against children and how to report them.
Vincentian learned the hard way.
Penn State’s Sandusky case, too, will undoubtedly cause more changes.
But do people really understand how widespread similar cases are?
“One of the biggest issues is whether people believe this happens,” said Dauphin County Chief Deputy District Attorney Sean McCormack. “It does happen, and a lot more than most people expect. And just because the Sandusky case comes and goes doesn’t mean the problem is going to come and go. People need to be vigilant.”
Correction: This story has been corrected. It mistakenly said that Duquesne officials had not responded to requests for comment. Duquesne officials were not called, but Duquesne's attorney in the case was and did not respond.
Also in this series
To help facilitate the conversation, we've put together some guidelines so you'll know what we think is harmful or inappropriate. Harmful, inappropriate content will be removed and repeat offenders can be banned from contributing in the future. Click here to read our commenting guidelines.