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Cornwall-Lebanon loses appeal of teacher-student sex case

Written by John Latimer/The Lebanon Daily News | Sep 13, 2017 7:40 AM
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Cedar Crest High School. (Photo: Michael K. Dakota--Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied Cornwall-Lebanon School District's request to appeal a lower court's decision that the district erred when it fired a teacher for having sex with an 18-year-old student on the night of her graduation.

The Supreme Court's decision to deny Cornwall-Lebanon's appeal of the Commonwealth Court ruling puts an end to a ping-pong match of decisions and appeals dating back to 2014 when the district fired Luke "Todd" Scipioni for his affair with the former student that occurred 10 years earlier.

Cornwall-Lebanon School District Superintendent Philip Domenic expressed displeasure and resignation at the court's decision, which will allow Scipioni to return to teaching for the first time since his firing three years ago. 

"The facts of this case remain undisputed. What has been in dispute is the appropriate consequence for Mr. Scipioni's conduct," he said in an emailed statement. "The Cornwall-Lebanon School District has been firm in its stance that this conduct was not appropriate for a public school teacher. The District will, however, abide by the decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upholding the arbitrator's award and returning Mr. Scipioni to employment."

Messages to the Cornwall-Lebanon Education Association were not returned.

Scipioni, a social studies teacher, was the coach of the Falcons girls' basketball team in 2003-04 when the pair struck up a relationship, after she confided in him that she had been sexually abused -- a claim she later recanted.

The relationship intensified during the course of the year, until they had sex on the night of her graduation, a month after she turned 18, according to court documents.

Their physical relationship continued through that summer but ended when the young woman went to college.

Rumors circulated in the district at the time, causing Scipioni to step down from his coaching position, citing family pressures.

But the rumors remained and when Scipioni attempted to return to coach the Falcons boys' basketball team several years later, school officials told him they did not want him in the position because of the suspected relationship with his former student.

According to court documents, when questioned by district officials in 2010, Scipioni denied having an inappropriate relationship with the student but admitted he had gotten "too close" to her and it had caused him "a lot of marital problems."

The affair with the student resurfaced in 2014, while Scipioni was in the midst of a divorce, when Cornwall-Lebanon School District received an anonymous phone call from someone claiming knowledge of the 2004 relationship.

After an investigation conducted by Domenic that included interviews with Scipioni, his wife and the young woman, the school board fired Scipioni in October 2014, when he was in his 18th year with the district. 

Scipioni's firing prompted the Cornwall Lebanon Education Association, the union representing district teachers, to file a grievance on his behalf.

After a series of hearings, in August 2015 an arbitrator ruled in favor of Scipioni and ordered that he should be reinstated after being suspended for one year without pay and benefits.

The arbitrator found Scipioni at fault for his failure to be truthful to district officials and for a separate issue involving inappropriate emails, but noted the district did not accuse him of having an improper relationship with the student prior to her graduation, and he was not culpable for the relationship they had after she graduated.

That, however, did not end the matter. 

The district appealed the ruling in Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas and won, when President Judge John C. Tylwalk reversed the arbitrator's decision in April of last year. 

The teacher's union appealed Tylwalk's decision to the state Commonwealth Court, which overruled it in February on the grounds that the court cannot reinterpret an arbitrator's "finding of fact or interpretation."

The school board voted to appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court in February.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

Published in Lebanon, News

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