School system repays some of falsely accused teacher’s legal fees
Since his exoneration, Lanigan has returned to work as a physical education teacher
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
Fairfax County Public Schools has agreed to pay some of the legal fees of former Centre Ridge Elementary School teacher and soccer coach Sean Lanigan, who — in 2010 — was falsely accused of sexually assaulting and abducting a 12-year-old, female student.
Lanigan and the school system have agreed to a settlement of $72,838. Lanigan said he spent $125,000 on his defense.
“The School Board and Mr. Lanigan have reached a settlement on essentially the same terms that were offered to him last November,” said school system spokesman John Torre in an email. “The School Board agreed to reimburse Mr. Lanigan for the amount of his attorneys' fees from his criminal case that were not already paid to him by his teachers' union insurance policy.”
Court records show Lanigan originally sought $107,838, but only received a $35,000 insurance payment from the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers union.
In 2010, a Fairfax County jury took less than 50 minutes to come back with a not guilty verdicts in Lanigan’s trial.
Lanigan’s accuser had told the school principal Lanigan molested her in the school gym.
During the four-day trial before Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Maxfield, the sixth-grader testified she was with a friend helping Lanigan clean up the gym when Lanigan picked her up, touched her inappropriately on both the breasts and buttocks, and then carried her into a nearby storage room. The girl then said Lanigan put her down on some folded gym mats and said something about treating her "like a queen."
The girl also testified that when a school bell rang, Lanigan held her against her will and prevented her from initially leaving the room.
However, upon cross examination by Lanigan's attorney Peter D. Greenspun, the girl admitted Lanigan did not touch her buttocks, but in fact came into contact only with her upper leg.
The accuser's best friend — another sixth-grade girl who was there when the incident in question occurred — testified she saw no sexual impropriety in the way Lanigan picked up the other girl, and said the entire incident had been all in fun. The best friend also testified she was told by Lanigan's accuser the two "needed to get their stories straight" immediately after the alleged incident. Both girls were part of a school program called P.E. Pals, in which students tidy up the gym.
On the stand, Lanigan's accuser admitted to Greenspun she was mad at Lanigan for several reasons, including an earlier reprimand and threat to remove her from the P.E. Pals program.
Some of the girl’s classmates testified they had heard her say she "hated Lanigan" and later boasted about "trying to sue the school for money."
Another factor in the case was the accuser's testimony that blue gym mats had been present in the storeroom where the incident allegedly occurred. Teachers and custodial staff testified mats never are stored there, and it was physically impossible for the mats to have been in that room because of the amount of sports equipment regularly stored in the space.
After his exoneration, Lanigan, now 45, said the five-month ordeal had been "a living hell" for him and his family.
He had been a full-time physical education teacher in Fairfax County since 1997, and taught at Centre Ridge Elementary school in Centreville since 1998.
He also coached soccer at Herndon High School and led the team to three Northern Region championships during the five years he initially coached there from 1996 to 2000. He was named The Washington Post All-Met Coach of the Year in 1996. He left Herndon for eight years to focus on coaching youth soccer teams, but returned as Herndon's soccer coach in 2008.
In addition to those coaching duties, he also coached youth soccer in McLean and for the Southwestern Youth Association. He also coached basketball in a community league in Centreville, where he lives with his wife and three children.
When Lanigan was charged he immediately was placed on unpaid administrative leave and was indefinitely suspended from all his coaching duties.
With no discernible income and mounting legal fees, "times were tough," he said. "We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese," Lanigan said after his trial.
"This girl flipped my life upside down and I'm trying to get everything back," he said. "It's a long process and it's not all together yet."
Since his exoneration, Lanigan has returned to work as a physical education teacher at South Lakes High School, but he said it is the Herndon coaching job that has given his life some sense of normalcy.
Within 12 hours of his acquittal, Lanigan contacted Herndon Athletics Director Mike Mahoney to ask for his coaching job back. The school agreed.
"We're like a family here," said junior goalkeeper Jack Clarke. "We wanted him to be our coach again."