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.
“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.’ ”
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.
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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.”
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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