Centreville As far as Sean Lanigan is concerned, the nearly $73,000 settlement he was awarded last week by the Fairfax County School Board is too little, too late. But he’s determined to put the past behind him, learn from it and move on.
The settlement concluded a two-and-a-half-year battle between FCPS and the former Centre Ridge Elementary P.E. teacher after he was accused of molesting a sixth-grade girl, put on trial and found not guilty. He then fought the board for reimbursement of his legal fees.
Lanigan signed the settlement agreement last Thursday, June 21. That night, in closed session, the School Board approved it.
After fighting for so long, he said Tuesday morning, June 26, “I’m emotionally and physically drained. But I’m very happy it’s over and glad to get this pressure off my life.”
In January 2010, a 12-year-old Centre Ridge student told authorities Lanigan had touched her inappropriately at the school and lay on top of her. Police charged him with aggravated sexual battery and abduction by force and FCPS placed him on unpaid, administrative leave.
But at Lanigan’s trial in Circuit Court, four months later, the jury didn’t believe the girl’s allegations — especially after a friend of hers testified that the sixth-grader told her she’d lied about what happened.
Under questioning on the witness stand, the accuser also admitted she was angry at Lanigan for saying he’d have her removed from her position as a bus patrol because of her bad behavior on the bus toward other students. After deliberating less than an hour, the jury acquitted him.
The P.E. teacher had worked at Centre Ridge since 1998 and was popular with and well-respected by his students and colleagues. Yet even after he was cleared of any wrongdoing and his record was expunged, then-Principal Jim Baldwin refused to reinstate him at the school.
Moreover, in July 2010, the board declined to pay the $107,838 in legal fees and expenses Lanigan had incurred — although according to state law, he was entitled to it because he’d been found innocent. So he hired attorney Bill Reichhardt the following spring and, in August 2011, filed suit against the School Board.
Reichhardt negotiated with the board’s attorneys to settle the case, to no avail. It was initially set for May 1 of this year in Circuit Court and both sides were preparing to take depositions. But after spring break, said Lanigan, “The board’s attorney came back asking Bill, ‘What does your client want?’”
Lanigan, of Virginia Run, was teaching P.E. at South Lakes High, but had asked to be transferred to Westfield High. His eldest daughter was already a freshman there and Lanigan’s other children will someday attend Westfield, as well.
He likes living in the same community where he teaches, so he’d hoped to teach P.E. and coach soccer at the school. And his first year at South Lakes, he was in an overstaffed position, only teaching two or three days a week, alternating with lunch-detention duty.
“The board’s attorney was fine with it,” said Lanigan. He said both sides agreed that he’d get $72,838 — his original demand, minus $35,000 he’d already received from the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers union. “The case was then taken off the docket,” he said. “But on April 27, the school system said it wouldn’t transfer me to Westfield with my full seniority — only in an overstaffed position.”
The case was rescheduled for July 30 and six more weeks of negotiations followed. By the first week of June, Lanigan had decided to stay at South Lakes, take the money offered and “just end it and move forward with my life,” he said. “There was nothing else to fight for.”
FCPS spokesman John Torre said the board and Lanigan “reached a settlement on essentially the same terms that were offered to him last November.” But Lanigan said it “only offered this settlement since April 27, or so, before the May 1 court date.”
Overall, he estimates he’s spent between $135,000 and $145,000 between the criminal and civil cases so, even with the settlement, the married father of three is still in a hole financially. “I’m frustrated about the amount of money I’ve lost and the time and energy I’ve spent on this case to get what rightfully should have been taken care of in July 2010,” said Lanigan. “But I wanted to see it through and make as much right as possible.”
He also decries the lack of a thorough investigation by the school system to verify whether the charge was credible. “Otherwise, they would have talked to people at Centre Ridge, discovered my evidence and found out my innocence,” said Lanigan. “They pinned me as guilty in the first two hours.”
“From day one, I never felt I had any backing or support from the school system,” he continued. But surprisingly, he said he harbors no hard feelings toward FCPS or the board. Said Lanigan: “I’m hoping my experience will open the School Board’s eyes to things that could be changed so something like this doesn’t happen to another teacher.”
He’s also enjoying his time at South Lakes and, last year, taught freshmen and sophomore P.E. full time. “I’m in a great teaching environment, I love my job and I’m happy,” he said. “And I wrote a 60-page fitness curriculum for ninth- and 10th-graders, which FCPS now uses.” Lanigan also learned about health and got his driver’s-ed endorsement so he can teach both subjects to sophomores, and he’s vying for P.E. Department chair.
“I like the people at South Lakes, the teachers are fantastic and the administration is supportive,” he said. “Coming from elementary school, it was a completely different world, at first. But I’m enjoying the challenge and have taken a leadership role there.” He’s also continuing to coach boys soccer at Herndon High, which he’s done since 1995.
“All in all, it’s still a great school system to work for,” added Lanigan. “I like learning, teaching and coaching.” But he admitted that the whole experience left a mark on him. “My first year at South Lakes, I was standoffish with everybody and on guard all the time,” he said. “This year, I was back to normal.”
Still, said Lanigan, “You can never protect yourself from a kid’s lie. But you have to try. Now, if I go into an equipment room, I’m never alone with a kid. If I’m in a classroom alone and a girl walks in, I’ll walk out until more kids come in. I’m more self-conscious about things I never would have thought about before this whole ordeal.”
At the same time, he still laughs and jokes with the students and says he’s once again the same teacher that “people know and love. I’ve built that reputation at South Lakes already and have a great rapport with the students.”
Recently, said Lanigan, a woman in Costco told him her son still talks about the positive impact Lanigan had on him when he was a Centre Ridge student in 1999. “He’s now 24, and it’s a nice feeling to be a favorite teacher,” said Lanigan. “That makes teachers feel like what they do is worthwhile.”
All his trouble, he said, happened because he was falsely accused. “I’ve coached 20 years and taught 14 years,” said Lanigan. “It’s unbelievable that the word of a 12-year-old can do so much damage to someone’s life. But I’m not going to let this one, unfortunate ordeal ruin what I do and who I am.”