Sean Lanigan answers your questions

May 16, 2011

Sean Lanigan was a physical education teacher at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax County until January 2010, when a sixth-grade girl falsely accused him of molesting her. He was interrogated, arrested, jailed and suspended without pay from his job. But even a year after a jury quickly found him not guilty of all charges, his life is still upside-down. The school district refuses to pay his $125,000 legal bill and continues to transfer him from school to school. He will be online to discuss the case at 2 p.m. with reporter Tom Jackman, who posted much more about the story today on The State of NoVa blog.

Hello -- Sean Lanigan here, live on Monday afternoon, to answer your questions about The Post's story and today's blog post about my situation. Tom Jackman is also here but I will try to keep him quiet. Let's start.

Have you thought of suing this girls family for the damage they've caused to your life? They've created an unbelievable amount of stress, possibly cost you your job, and tarred you with sex offense charges. Why isn't this girl being punished for lying about all of this? Also, have you threatened legal action against Fairfax Public Schools if they don't reinstate you with full pay?

Sean: I'm letting my lawyers handle all the legal work. As far as why she has not been punished with FCPS, that's a good question for them.

Mr. Lanigan, I read your story and was shocked at what I read. I am so sorry for you and your family. My father was also falsely accused of child molestation in the early 90s at the height of "stranger danger" by a girl whose story was full of more holes than your accuser's. It took years to get his life back on track. It sounds like you have the support of the community at large, save for the school district trying to CYA. I think it's terrible that they are not accepting the verdict and are still treating you as if you are guilty. You and your family have my best wishes for getting your lives back together.

Sean: Thank you.

I believe that Mr. Lanigan is completely innocent and I hope he is able to get his life back. My heart goes out to he and his wife and children. My question for him is this: Why did he think it was appropriate or "smart" to pick up kids and swing them around in the first place? I currently have 3 children in school, from K- grade 10 and if any of them came to me and said that their gym teacher was picking them up and swinging them around on a regular basis, even playfully, I would be uncomfortable with that. I just don't believe teachers should be putting their hands on students, however innocent it may be. Again, I believe Sean is innocent and I am not trying to cast aspersions on him, but I do believe he made an error in judgment in picking up the kids playfully in the first place. Does he regret doing that at all?

Sean: Thanks for the question.  I've treated my students as I've treated my own kids. No administrator has ever told me I was doing anything wrong and there's no FCPS policy that forbids playful contact. And I would never pick up any child  inappropriately or who didn't initiate physical contact first.


What made you decide to share your story with the Post? How hard was it to trust a reporter when FCPS and FCPD completely failed you?

The Post reached out to me and asked for my side of the story. I talked to my lawyer, Peter Greenspun, who thought it was a good idea. It was extremely hard to trust Mr. Jackman at first,  but the more I got to know him, the easier it was to share the pain in my life.

Sean: Do you feel that the school transfers are the result of de staffing priorities?

Sean: When I was placed at South Lakes, I was placed in what they call an "overstaffed" position. South Lakes did not have a full-time position, even though I was a full-time teacher. When they're looking at staffing for next year,  they do not have the numbers to keep me here. And apparently overstaffed positions cut destaffed before seniority. 

I was utterly shocked by the story, and cannot imagine what it must be like for you and your family. Is there anything readers can do, funds that we can contribute to?

Sean: There has been an account set up to help. Checks should be sent to:

Sean Lanigan Defense Fund

14001-C St. Germain Dr. #6398

Centreville, VA 20121

Thanks for asking.

Sean - I'm the president of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. We're very concerned about false allegations because they take away services and protections from the real victims. Thanks for your courage in speaking out on this troubling social problem. E. Bartlett

Sean: I appreciate the support and agree with you 100%. This issue really needs to be addressed.

There was a debate on whether to disclose the identity of the girl that accused you. What is your position on that matter? Do you think her identity should be public?

Sean: Her identity should not be public. She's a 13-year-0ld troubled girl who I hope one day gets the help she needs.

Has the girl involved ever officially admitted she lied or recanted her story? Also, what was your experience in the 4 days in jail. I know it is common for new arrivals to be strip searched. Was that your experience? And would you say guards treated you fairly? And other inmates?

Sean: She has not officially said she lied, but she has sent out a Facebook msg to her friends saying it was all a joke.  I hope one day she comes clean with the full truth.

As for jail: It was the worst 4 days of my life. Being taken from my children and wife with no communication on their well-being is every father's nightmare. I was not strip-searched. I was kept in isolation and fed baloney sandwiches for four days. I really had no interaction with guards except for showing me to or from the courtroom. I tried to keep a very low profile and not break any of the facility rules. I did not interact at all with any other inmates. 

I just wanted to say that the poster who questioned why would would pick up the kids playfully is part of the problem as well. The world has gone crazy. There is no "safe" recourse for a law abiding well intentioned citizen anymore. My best to you and your family. I hope the girl and her family have to pay your legal bills, if FCPS doesn't live up to their obligations.

Sean: Thanks.

Have you been following comments or tweets on the article? What has been the response of people, in your view?

Sean: Yes, I've been following the comments on the Washington Post. I am overwhelmed with the support of the community in all of Northern Virginia that my family and I are receiving. 

Isn't this the same school district that punished others to the point they resorted to suicide? Was the girl transferred?

Sean: Yes, this is the same district, but I understand they are making changes to that disciplinary policy. The girl was not transferred, she moved on to her base middle school.

Sean- sorry to read your nightmare continues with this. You coached my son Ryan a few years ago as a GK and you were instrumental in moving up the soccer development ladder. There seems like there should be some indeminification coverage of the County's employee's if they are found not guilty in terms of paying out legal fee's on allegations on school time or property, is that not the case with Fairfax County?

Sean: There is a policy that allows for repayment of legal fees, and I hope one day I get my money back. 

I'm confused about one thing: Part of the article said that the girl recanted early in the process, but then another part said she testified at the trial that it took place. Can you help with this?

Sean: She changed her story three different times. She didn't fully recant. Every time she told it, a new version seemed to pop up.  She did recant parts of her story, especially claiming that I laid on top of her and was grinding my hips to her hips. She was trying to align her story with the other girl every time they told it.

This is not a question but a thanks to Tom Jackman for helping to make a difference here. Clearly Mr. Lanigan is getting treated poorly here, and you are a true journalist for helping to get the word out, even if many parties decline to say anything. (Their loss).

Tom: Well said Mom.

My partner, an attorney in Wisconsin, has tried several cases in which men were falsely accused of child molestation or rape. In two of the cases, the claimant was getting back at an ex-husband/boyfriend. In another, a woman was hoping to get money. In one, the young woman just got angry at a guy she was dating, and called the police claiming that the guy had raped her. After the defendants spent thousands of dollars in attorney fees, etc., juries reached a verdict of not guilty in each case. You can't imagine what the falsely accused men have to go through, including being embarrassed by newspaper articles that come out immediately after the false claim. I wonder what could be done to detract people from making such serious false claims. And is there a speedier way to get to the bottom of things?

Sean: The parenting of today is not what parenting was when I grew up. As a father of a 14-year-old, I'd always believe what my daughter was telling me, but I certainly would investigate it thoroughly if I knew that what she was telling me would ruin another person's life.

Has Sean Lanigan found permanent, full time work yet? Is he considering relocating somewhere further away, say out of state, and just starting a new life? I can imagine how hard it would be to do that, with a wife and children to consider, but sometimes to find work, people are making the tough choice to relocate to improve their situation. I hope this article will help Sean in his endeavor to reclaim his life. He (and his family) certainly has been through quite enough.

Sean: I'm still employed full-time with FCPS and wish to continue educating the youth of Northern Virginia. This particular year, I am in the situation where I am only teaching part-time, but still remain as a full-time teacher. 

You grew up here so did that make this harder, to know this could really happen to you in a place you thought you knew and felt secure in?

Sean: Yes. I've spent my whole life here and feel very secure in Northern Virginia. It actually made it easier to cope with, having so many supporters. 

Is it true that the accuser's parents were the first to contact the school regarding this allegation, and that the accuser and witnesses were not interviewed before you were interviewed and required to leave the school immediately?

Sean: The accuser was interviewed by CPS at their facility the day before I was interrogated. The other three students who were in the gym at the time of the alleged incident were interviewed the same day I was. But as far as I know, there's no evidence that Detective Christian personally talked to the accuser before she issued my arrest warrants. 

Sean...It seems that this whole nightmare could have been aborted had the folks on the school level handled things properly. Has anything been done to ensure that proper protocol will be followed for the next FCPS "victim" of a false accusation? I am so glad that you are finally getting the recognition that this mess deserves...keep fighting to get your life back!

Sean: Good question. Like the student disciplinary policy, I hope the policies regarding teachers are reviewed as well.

Could you address the media's part in all this? Should media be reporting left and right when someone is accused and arrested or hold off? Should media be responsible about reporting to equal extent the results of investigations/trials, especially when charges are dropped or the person is exonerated? Why should the names and positions, etc. of accused be public before anything is clear?

Sean: The hardest thing I'm going to overcome is all the media attention and the articles on the Internet. That's something that myself, my kids, even my grandkids, will have to live with. 

I'm very thankful that the media, now, is seeing both sides. They dragged me through the mud from the beginning, but it's nice to see that they are taking care of loose ends in the aftermath. 

can you speak to how you have been accepted or not in the teaching and coaching communities?

Sean: I have been overwhelmingly accepted here at South Lakes with the PE staff. My learning curve was great, to learn a new curriculum and the PE teachers here have been very supportive in anything I needed. 

In soccer, I was reinstated in 12 hours. The soccer community welcomed me back with open arms. 

Would you consider advocating for the interests of others similarly falsely accused and defamed, perhaps by starting a non-profit or publicizing your story through a book?

Sean: I would help out anybody, any way I could, that has been falsely accused and to find the strength needed to persevere. 

Question for Tom Jackman: You've covered Fairfax police for a long time. Any thoughts on why both the FCPD and CA's Office are so convinced that a crime occurred? Do they ever admit they're wrong?

Tom: The Fairfax police and prosecutors are passionate about what they do. They don't believe they prosecute innocent people, and I don't think they set out to wrongly convict anyone. But when you do a lot of investigating and prosecuting of truly bad people, and they all say they're innocent, the one who might actually be innocent can sometimes slip through. 

To what do you attribute the rush to arrest, the nature of the offense or poor police work? Also wanted to offer my kudos to Tom for a fine story.

Sean: I would say a combination of both the nature of the offense and the police work. 

I feel awful for the situation you are in. I am glad you went to the Post and that they are highlighting your situation. By shedding this much attention on the issue you will force the School district and DA's office to review their handling of this case and future ones. Also - I hope the attention corrects (or attempts to) the wrongs that have been committed upon you

Sean: Thank  you.

First, I am so very sorry about this incident. I work on criminal justice policy issues and I am acutely aware of how easy it is for someone to get caught up in this system. I've met innocent people who were on death row and later cleared through DNA evidence. FWIW, you did the right thing by going with a very good attorney--it's why you are not looking at decades in prison. Fairfax County really should step up and cover these costs-- short of a civil suit, it appears they will not (and in defense of the county--they had a duty to report and the police had a duty to investigate, but clearly given the information Mr. Jackman posted separately about how the mother of the witness who recanted was intimidated as well as fellow staff being threatened with criminal charges because they didn't lie to support Office Christian's case, this was a case of win at all costs. Good luck disciplining that officer--her union will prevent that). Any chance you can establish a legal defense fund to help cover those costs? I'm guessing a civil suit against a 12-year-old and her family is out of the question.

Sean: I really appreciate the support. Some friends of mine have set up an account. Here's the address again: 

Sean Lanigan Defense Fund

14001-C St. Germain Dr. #6398

Centreville, Va. 20121

From what I've read, you seem like a very caring teacher and coach. Growing up I've hugged, tugged at and cried on many shoulders of my teachers, both male and female. Teachers are surrogate parents. Anyone that says different is completely blind. Small children want you to hold their hands and older ones sometimes need it as well. To think that a teacher can't pat you on the back for a job well done makes me very sad. Instead of punishing you, I hope that they do a better job of screening teachers. I do hope you are able to recover. Can't see how that will happen considering that this story will exist forever.

Sean: I really appreciate the support. I know I've made a big difference in a lot of kids' lives. Every teacher is willing to give a student a hug or hold their hand when they need reinforcing or support. 

Sean: I've got to go, but thanks to everyone for the good questions and all your support. My family and I have relied on the shoulders of this community to help us get through this, and we will continue to do so.

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