A Fairfax County teacher who was acquitted in a high-profile trial of illegally touching a female student has lost his teaching license and is again facing accusations of inappropriate conduct with young girls.
Sean Lanigan, then a Centre Ridge Elementary School physical education teacher, prevailed at trial in 2010 and participated in media interviews to describe his experience of being a teacher falsely accused of sexual misconduct. Lanigan’s media appearances included a live interview on NBC’s TODAY show in 2011. The gym teacher described and refuted the allegations made by a 12-year-old sixth grade girl and described the negative impact the accusations had on his family.
An investigation by the News4 I-Team reveals Sean Lanigan formally canceled his teaching license in February 2017, after Fairfax County Public Schools sought to have state education officials revoke it. A school district memo, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, includes a new series of allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct against Lanigan in 2014 and 2015, while working as a gym teacher at South Lakes High School in Reston.
The Fairfax County Public Schools memo was written in 2015 and alleged Lanigan inappropriately touched and made sexual comments to some students. “The most egregious and jarring allegation involved Mr. Lanigan running his finger up the inner thigh of a 15-year-old female student,” the memo said. Lanigan denied the accusation, but another student and a colleague of Lanigan’s witnessed the incident, according to the memo.
The memo said Lanigan also was observed by colleagues “holding hands with female students, providing unnecessary physical guidance [grabbing arms, putting an arm around them, leading them away for no obvious reason, hugging a student and tripping a student.]” The memo also said, “Students reported Mr. Lanigan as referring to a female student as his girlfriend, discussing female body parts with male students and engaging in a conversation with a female student about a vibrator.” Lanigan denied the accusations, but other staff and students confirmed witnessing the incidents, according to the memo.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh told the I-Team police investigated the allegations at South Lakes High School in 2015, spoke with the families of the students and notified prosecutors. No criminal charges were filed, according to Morrogh and an I-Team review of Fairfax County court records.
“We knew there were some incidents there,” Morrogh said. “We don’t know if we had the specifics, but I know the police were in touch with some of the families.”
Families of students questioned in the school district investigation did not want to pursue a criminal investigation, Morrogh said. He said he felt, “It would be very difficult to ask a child to come forward after what happened to the first (student).”
Lanigan declined a request for an interview with the I-Team.
“I was found not guilty in 2010 of the charges brought against me with good reason -- there was absolutely no truth in any of it,” Lanigan said in a written statement. “The girl making the accusations had the opportunity to testify, and her testimony was found not at all credible; in fact, the jury took only 47 minutes to come back with their unanimous verdict of not guilty. All of this is detailed in numerous articles in the Washington Post. Furthermore, I have 18 years of experience teaching and I have never inappropriately touched a student. However, after the trial, when I returned to teaching, tension remained between the school system and me and, after five years, although I still enjoyed teaching, I decided to move on with my life and surrendered my teaching license.”
The school district memo found earlier allegations of misconduct by Lanigan that predated his 2010 trial and acquittal. “In May 2007, Mr. Lanigan received a reprimand for poor judgment and unprofessional behavior when he made other staff uncomfortable during a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange,” the memo said. “At that time, Mr. Lanigan gave another employee a large box of chocolates, a $75 gift certificate, a ‘pornament’ that depicted two reindeer having sex and two magazines that were interspersed with pictures of nude men and women.” According to a 2012 Washington Post article about Lanigan’s case, he characterized the ornament as a joke gift for a “Secret Santa” exchange. According to the Washington Post report, Lanigan said the teacher to whom he gave the “pornament” did not object.
A former Lanigan student, speaking with the I-Team under condition of anonymity, alleged a series of inappropriate comments and physical touching by Lanigan in the late 1990s.
The former student said her mother filed a formal complaint with Lanigan’s principal in 1997 and asked the school remove her daughter from Lanigan’s class. She said Lanigan had also made an offensive comment during gym class on her birthday.
“(Lanigan) said I should run the mile in my birthday suit,” she said.
“That’s a very sexual comment,” she added. “It’s too much. It’s way too much.”
Lanigan did not specifically address these earlier allegations, but in a 2012 article in the Washington Post, he described such an exchange with a student. He told the Washington Post the girl went to class without her gym uniform. He characterized the exchange about a “birthday suit” as a joke.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.