Before tawdry headlines, she was just Stephanie to him

Irvin wasn't surprised to see her smiling in mug shots. "Stephanie is Stephanie,'' he said, "and that's just her personality."

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

Irvin wasn't surprised to see her smiling in mug shots. "Stephanie is Stephanie,'' he said, "and that's just her personality."

TAMPA — Tony Irvin hesitated when asked to talk about his girlfriend.

"I could tell you a million and one good things about her," he said this week, "and it's not going to help her."

His girlfriend is Stephanie Ragusa, the former teacher accused of having sex with two students at Davidsen Middle School. Arrested three times since March, the 29-year-old has joined the ranks of notorious educators who are household names for all the wrong reasons.

But before the tawdry headlines, before strangers knew details about her tattoos and private parts, Ragusa lived with Irvin, five cats and one dog in a stucco house in Carrollwood.

Irvin said his girlfriend of two years watched home decorating shows and movies — anything but scary thrillers. She donated to causes for animals and special needs children and talked about getting married and having children of her own.

Life wasn't always idyllic. But Irvin, 25, said he had no warning about the firestorm about to engulf them.

"Stephanie's life has been invaded by allegations" that haven't been proven, he said. "It's a very hard road to travel, and I don't wish this on anybody."

To learn more about Ragusa, the St. Petersburg Times called family members, former colleagues and classmates, job references and acquaintances.

Some people giggled but wouldn't talk, others hung up quickly or never called back. Ragusa's father didn't respond to inquiries. Ragusa, who remains jailed, refused to comment.

During a one-hour interview, Irvin decided to take a chance.

"Stephanie is a bright, very intelligent, good-hearted person," he said. "She wasn't very open. But when you get to know her, many good characteristics come out."

He spoke matter-of-factly and without bitterness. He said he still loves her.

"I will always love her, no matter what," he said. But "it's kind of hard to date somebody who's in jail. I would say our relationship's on hold."

Long before they met, Stephanie Marie Ragusa was getting write-ups in the Times for her success in gymnastics. At age 12, she won first all-around at the Gemini Invitational in Oldsmar.

She ran with the smart crowd at Clearwater Central Catholic High School. In yearbooks, she was pictured and quoted often, reflecting on cheerleading, schoolwork, powder puff football and school uniforms. The senior class of 1997 voted her "Most Stubborn."

She was 15 when the Hillsborough school district went to federal court to try to remove her 16-year-old autistic brother from Chamberlain High School for being disruptive. Ragusa's parents fought the effort, but a judge allowed the teen to be sent to a special education center.

Three months after Ragusa graduated from the University of South Florida with a political science major, her mother died.

Irvin said Ragusa remains close to her father and brother. In a recorded phone call released this week, Ragusa worried to one of her alleged victims about who would care for her brother if she went to jail and something happened to their father.

By the time she was hired by the Hillsborough school district in July 2006, Ragusa had been charged with three crimes. Authorities accused her of stealing from the Pottery Barn where she worked, driving under the influence and attacking her boyfriend at the time with a golf club at Plantation Palms golf course in Land O'Lakes.

The charges were dropped or resolved through pretrial intervention. But school officials took her to task for failing to disclose the arrests on her application.

It was a rocky start to a career Irvin had cautioned her against pursuing. Because she was young and attractive, he worried about the possibility of allegations like those she now faces.

Irvin said Ragusa always dressed professionally for school, like the lawyer she dreamed of becoming. She seemed to have a knack for connecting with special needs students.

But as she bounced around to three different school in the past two years, professional and personal troubles plagued her.

At Madison Middle School, her first teaching job, she was reprimanded for improperly restraining a female student, according to her personnel file.

She transferred after only a few months to Davidsen, hoping for a fresh start. Rumors of misbehavior flew. Ragusa felt like she was being harassed by more veteran teachers, Irvin said. He doesn't remember specifics.

"Toward the end, I just stopped listening," he said. "I was telling her you need to get out, people are treating you unfairly."

Hillsborough sheriff's detectives say Ragusa was having sex with male students, first with a 14-year-old who was in one of her classes during the 2006-07 school year, then with a 15-year-old at the school.

Detectives said she continued having sex with the latter teen after her first two arrests.

She drove to the boy's home in Irvin's Dodge pickup.

Ragusa began at Martinez Middle in August 2007 and got into trouble before teaching her first class, Irvin said. Administrators told her to make her room colorful, so she painted one wall the school's green. But she didn't have permission, and they made her repaint the wall white.

She later was reprimanded for using profanity and discussing her personal life with students.

"That was basically Stephanie's teaching career," Irvin said. "One headache after another."

Sheriff's deputies responded to the couple's Lake Bella Vista Drive home three times last year for domestic violence calls. Irvin was arrested June 8 on a misdemeanor battery charge and ordered to stay away from Ragusa after she accused him of slamming her on the floor.

Two weeks later, Ragusa and Irvin persuaded a judge to drop the injunction. Prosecutors also dropped the battery charge.

Irvin, a pitcher drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2004 who as of last year worked in a furniture warehouse, said they had gotten past all that.

At the time of her first arrest, Ragusa had been on medical leave for about a month, stricken by a fever and vomiting.

But Irvin wasn't surprised to see her smiling in mug shots.

"Stephanie is Stephanie,'' he said, "and that's just her personality."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Before tawdry headlines, she was just Stephanie to him 05/09/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 11, 2008 11:20am]

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