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Video: Cleared of molestation, teacher still living ‘nightmare’

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    >>> back now at 8:17 with the ongoing torment for a teacher falsely accused of molesting a 12-year-old student. he'll speak out in a live interview but first norah o'donnell has the story. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, meredith . it's a parent's worst nightmare. news that a teacher in your school may have molested a child. but in this story, there is a twist. a jury actually acquitted the teacher on all charges. now that's raising serious questions about whether the school and the police should have done a more thorough investigation.

    >> sean lannigan was living the american dream . a married father of three with a great reputation as a teacher and top-ranked soccer coach. but his life changed forever in january 2010 when the 43-year-old dad was accused of molesting a 12-year-old female student.

    >> she accused me of grabbing her boob and her year end, bringing her into a closet, throwing her on some mats and pinning her down and lying on top of her.

    >> reporter: lannigan was arrested, spent four nights in jail and was facing 40 years in a state penitentiary. prosecutors wanted him to plead to a lesser charge but he refused, confident that a trial would expose the truth.

    >> i was excited to go to trial so the truth could come out and i would get my life back.

    >> reporter: a jury deliberated and within 47 minutes unanimously found him not guilty.

    >> when the judge read the verdict of not guilty, both charges, it felt like the world was off my shoulders.

    >> reporter: after the trial, jurors called it an easy decision because of the lack of evidence. the accuser is a minor, so nbc will not identify her. so why would a 12-year-old 6th grader falsely accuse a popular gym teacher of such a heinous crime.

    >> she didn't like me.

    >> reporter: lannigan said his accuser was angry at him. he was head of the school safety patrol and received a phone call saying the girl was bullying other children on the bus she patrolled. lannigan warned her that it was time to behave.

    >> not once, but twice. the third time would be removal.

    >> reporter: during the trial there was other testimony that the girl told her friends mr. lanigan 's a jerk. i'm going to make him pay. on cross-examination the girl acknowledged she was mad at lanigan . in one instance for not playing her favorite music in gym class . lanigan 's lawyer presented evidence from her facebook page in which she said it was a joke.

    >> she posted on facebook that this was all a joke. as far as we know the investigators for the police or school never looked at that.

    >> it made my life a living nightmare.

    >> reporter: he's a free man but shackled by the false accusations . he no longer teaches at that time school that for so many years he called home. now the fairfax county schools defend their decision to place lanigan at a different school saying in any standard disciplinary proceeding that it's policy to transfer the teacher just to give everybody a fresh start. now lanigan faces $125,000 in legal bills. the fairfax county schools say he can seek reimbursement for that from the teachers' association but lanigan 's lawyer said it's the police department , not the teachers' -- i should say the school system , not the teachers' association that is responsible for not doing a thorough investigation. meredith ?

    >> norah o'donnell, thank you very much. sean and karen lanigan are with us exclusively now. good morning.

    >> good morning, meredith .

    >> what a nightmare you have been through and you are still living though you were found not guilty of molesting this student. i want to go to january of last year when you were pulled out of the classroom, taken into another room with police officers .

    >> correct.

    >> and basically told nothing for a while. it was confusing, right? finally they revealed this student was going to accuse you of molesting her.

    >> yes. for 25 minutes it was small chit-chat of who i am, what i do, how i interact with students. i didn't really understand they two detectives were talking to me. 25 minutes into it the lead detective said, you have no idea why you're here, do you. i said, no, i really don't.

    >> what's going through your mind when they told you the accusation?

    >> i was stunned. absolutely shocked. i love all my students. just absolutely stunned that a student would make these accusations.

    >> nine days later you were formally charged. karen , he's going to go off to jail, tells you this is happening and your children. you have three very young children. describe what it was like in your home that day.

    >> it was devastating. i ran home from work, comforted him and tried to discuss with our children, prepare them for what was going to be happening. it was unbelievable. i couldn't imagine the emotional distress.

    >> you wanted to take it to trial. they offered you a plea bargain and you said, no way, i didn't do anything. it went to trial and after 47 minutes of deliberation the jury came back. you think, great, everything's okay now. no, it isn't.

    >> no. i thought the world was off my shoulders when the jury came back. i thought i would be back in school the next day after memorial day weekend , back on the soccer field and reunited with the community of centre ridge. but i was reinstated within 12 hours of soccer. i was coaching my kids, the other teams i had.

    >> you weren't allowed back to the elementary school . what's the reason if you were not guilty?

    >> i never understood why i was not able to come back. i petitioned the principal to come back for graduation, see the kids, say hello and he denied the request.

    >> you had to leave your job because of that. what's it done to your family?

    >> overall it made us stronger as a family. we have bonded together to try to get through this tough ordeal. but it put us in a huge financial bind.

    >> $125,000 just in legal debt alone.

    >> yes. that and it's still rising . emotionally it's been a nightmare. we both don't sleep well anymore. i'm in therapy just trying to deal with the stress of putting it behind us.

    >> it's a complicated story, your life story obviously, but in terms of resolution do you plan to sue the school , the police department , the parents of the child?

    >> right now i'm trying to get my job secured for the fall and trying to secure as much money as we can. my lawyers will handle everything else after that.

    >> sean and karen , thank you very much for joining us. this can't be easy for

By
TODAY contributor
updated 5/17/2011 10:59:33 AM ET 2011-05-17T14:59:33

It took a jury in northern Virginia just 47 minutes to decide that popular gym teacher and soccer coach Sean Lanigan had been falsely accused of sexually assaulting a student, a 12-year-old girl angered over the fact that he had chastised her. But even now, nearly a year after he was acquitted of all charges, there’s no way of knowing how long it will take for Lanigan to piece his life back together.

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“Emotionally it’s been a nightmare,” Lanigan told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday, as his wife Karin clung to his arm. In the months since his ordeal, he’s been bounced from school to school in the Fairfax County district that had been his home for most of his professional life, he said. His legal bills have reached $125,000 and are still rising, and the school district has refused to pay them.

It’s taking its toll, he said. “I’m in therapy, just trying to deal with the stress,” he told Vieira.

A surprise visit
Lanigan’s long nightmare began in January 2010, when the 43-year-old father of three was summoned to the office at the Centre Ridge Elementary School where he had been a well-respected teacher for more than a decade. Sitting there were two police detectives.

At first, the detectives told him nothing, he said. “For about 25 minutes it was small chitchat about who I am, what I do, how I interact with students,” Lanigan told Vieira. “I really didn’t understand why the detectives were talking to me.”

Finally, “the lead detective said, ‘You have no idea why you’re here, do you?’ ” Lanigan recalled. “And I was like, ‘No I really don’t.’ ”

Related: Teacher cleared of sex abuse makes peace with her ex

And then they laid it all out. A sixth-grader — a girl Lanigan had recently chastised for bullying, warning her that she might lose her coveted position as a monitor aboard a school bus — had accused him of an unspeakable crime. She claimed that Lanigan had molested her, grabbing her buttocks and her breast, and that he had dragged her to a closet, forced her down on some mats and lain on top of her.

“I was stunned. I mean, absolutely shocked,” Lanigan told Vieira Tuesday. “I love all my students and I was just absolutely stunned that a student would actually make these accusations.”

Nine days later, Lanigan was arrested on charges of aggravated sexual battery and abduction, charges that could have sent him to prison for 40 years. It fell to his wife to comfort her husband and to try to explain it all to their three children.

“It was devastating,” Karin Lanigan told Vieira. “I ran home from work and ... tried to discuss [it] with our children to prepare them for what was going to be happening. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t fathom the emotional and mental distress.”

A short time later, Lanigan was booked and thrown into the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center for four days. Television news crews descended on the school and on Lanigan’s neighborhood. His reputation was shattered.

Related: Female teacher acquitted of child molestation

In the months that followed, prosecutors tried to persuade Lanigan to plead guilty to a lesser charge. But Lanigan said he was adamant: He was innocent and would prove it.

“I was excited for a trial,” he told NBC News. “The truth was finally going to come out, and I was going to get my life back.”

Not guilty
Last May, Lanigan’s case finally came to trial. His accuser, whose name is being withheld due to her age, admitted under cross-examination that she “hated” Lanigan, and that he had angered her, not just because he had chastised her for bullying, but because he had refused to play her favorite music during gym class. She also acknowledged that she had described her allegations against Lanigan as “a joke” on her Facebook page. She had told friends, “Mr. Lanigan is a jerk,’ and vowed, “I’m going to make him pay.”

That was enough to convince the jury that the case against Lanigan was built on sand.

“It was an easy decision,” juror Asman al-Ghafari told the Washington Post. “I just hope Mr. Lanigan can get his life back.”

But that has proven to be easier said than done, Lanigan said.

The “world was off my shoulders that day when the jury came back,” he said. “I thought I’d be back in school the next day.”

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But while Lanigan was allowed to resume his coaching duties for the local soccer leagues, his job with the school district remains in limbo. It took the school district three months to decide that it would not allow Lanigan to return to Centre Ridge, and since then, it has posted him at two different schools on a part-time basis, teaching only five out of every 10 days, although he receives a full-time salary.

“I never understood why I wasn’t able to come back,” he told Vieira. “I petitioned the principal to come back just for graduation, just to see the kids, say hello. They denied that request.”

Video: Cleared of molestation, teacher still living ‘nightmare’ (on this page)

For now, Lanigan says he still does not know what the future may hold and is focused on dealing with crushing legal fees — $125,000 and still mounting — and the uncertainty over his job prospects.

But he declined to say whether he plans to sue the school board or his accuser’s family. “Right now, I’m just trying to get my job secured for the fall and trying to secure as much money as we can,” he said.

But if anything positive has come out of the ordeal, it is that he has become closer to his loved ones because of it. “Overall it’s made us stronger as a family. We really bonded together to get through this tough ordeal.”


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