So we now know that Fairfax County paid its lawyers almost twice what it paid its own school teacher Sean Lanigan, before agreeing to pay Lanigan the money he first sought in 2010. The story and background of the county’s legal fees are here.
But why did the Fairfax County school board spend $141,030 of taxpayer money to fight Lanigan’s lawsuit and then settle it for exactly what he was originally seeking? And why didn’t they pay Lanigan long before a lawsuit was ever filed? Why did they force one of their own teachers to spend tens of thousands of dollars more simply to extract his $72,000 in legal fees?
The school district isn’t talking, beyond a statement that said Lanigan turned down a settlement offer in November 2011, which did not mention that he’d been asking for the money since July 2010. But the real reason that Fairfax authorities stonewalled Lanigan is an 11-page “Investigative Report” by school district investigator Stephen Kerr, written a month after Lanigan’s acquittal. The report concluded that Lanigan — a hugely popular gym teacher, soccer coach and father of three -- was still an unsavory fellow, he just happened to be found not guilty by a Fairfax County jury.
Kerr’s report was riddled with inaccuracies and incomplete information (we’ll get to that in a minute), but it was circulated to top Fairfax school officials. So when Lanigan came to the district and asked that his legal fees be reimbursed, the district didn’t even bother with a reply. They just ignored him. Forced him to hire a lawyer. Then spent $141,000 of taxpayer money.
The school district would not discuss the internal report without a waiver from Lanigan. Lanigan, on advice of his attorney, declined. He did not provide Kerr’s report, which was obtained elsewhere during reporting for my story on the case in May 2011. That was a story that never would have appeared if the school district had simply settled with Lanigan, which it ultimately did 14 months later.
Kerr’s report was written on June 23, 2010, about a month after Lanigan was acquitted of abducting and sexually abusing a sixth-grade student at Centre Ridge Elementary School. He had faced up to 40 years in prison. “Although he was found not guilty of these criminal charges at his trial,” Kerr wrote on the first page, “my investigation determined that his conduct was at least inappropriate.”
Kerr then added: “At the time of this writing, the CPS [Child Protective Services] finding is pending.” That was false. In fact, on June 10, the CPS investigation had concluded the allegation was “unfounded.”
Kerr told me last year that he would not discuss his report or any aspect of the Lanigan case.
Kerr next wrote that Lanigan “became a full-time employee in 1994” and was “transferred to Centre Ridge ES in 1998.” Lanigan actually became a full-time teacher in 1997.
Kerr also outlined a prior incident in which Lanigan was reprimanded for sexual harassment, in which he gave a female colleague at Centre Ridge a Christmas ornament showing “two reindeers mating.” Lanigan said last year that he had picked up a joke ornament at Spencer’s Gifts for a “Secret Santa” exchange, and that the teacher he gave the “pornament” to did not object. But another woman who saw the item was offended and filed a complaint. Lanigan was given a reprimand, which he did not challenge because he didn’t think it mattered at the time.
Kerr also related an incident “when Mr. Lanigan had been seen with his hand in a female student’s pocket, searching for a quarter.” The truth, Lanigan said last year, was that the student wanted money for milk but was holding her tray with both hands. Lanigan said he put 50 cents in her pocket. He was not reprimanded for that one.
(UPDATE: Lanigan said Thursday that the girl was a member of his soccer team and he was very close with her family, thus the familiarity.)
After Lanigan was arrested, his name widely broadcast on local news, a former female student came forward and told police that Lanigan had
asked her to take her clothes off touched her inappropriately. This was cited by some as further evidence of Lanigan’s sleazy nature. Lanigan said the girl had been jogging around the track at school and told Lanigan it was her birthday. Lanigan yelled out, “Let’s see you in your birthday suit,” as a lame joke. Years later, she complained.
(UPDATE: Lanigan clarified Thursday that the girl was not jogging but had come to P.E. class without her gym uniform. He said he put his arm around her and joked, “I guess you will have to wear your birthday suit today.” He said this was in 1997 and his touching her created confusion due to her cultural background.)
Kerr’s report then proceeded to detail the investigation of the sexual assault complaint by the 12-year-old girl in January 2010. It did not mention the girl’s widely known animus toward Lanigan, which emerged at trial, due to her repeated disciplinary problems. He did note that he and the detectives accompanied a 12-year-old witness to the equipment room where Lanigan reportedly lay the girl on a stack of tumbling mats, and “none were in the room during our visit.” Numerous witnesses said the mats were never stored there and wouldn’t fit in the cluttered room.
Kerr also detailed both his own and the detectives’ interviews with Lanigan, in which he adamantly denied groping the girl and didn’t recall picking her up eight days earlier, though he said he may have. He told the investigators the mats were never stored in the room in question. He acknowledged picking up students, mostly “little kids,” from time to time, and no one had objected.
Kerr quoted Lanigan saying, “I am very careful when I pick up the girls, not to put my hand anywhere near their breasts.”
Kerr concluded his report by saying, “Although Mr. Lanigan was cleared of any criminal charges at the trial, his conduct has violated FCPS regulations and policies.” He referenced Lanigan’s comment about being careful with girls and said, “The mere fact that he is concerned about this should cause a prudent individual to refrain from such behavior.
“Consequently,” the report ended, “he has exercised poor judgment when he engaged in this type of inappropriate interactions with students.”
Armed with this report, the school district felt it still had a bad man in its midst. Then-Centre Ridge principal James Baldwin issued Lanigan a reprimand in August 2010. Lanigan challenged it with a grievance. In December 2010, district administrator Robert Callahan heard the case and ordered the reprimand rescinded and removed from Lanigan’s files.
But still, the district would not respond to Lanigan’s request for reimbursement of his legal fees and he was transferred out of Centre Ridge, forcing his wife to give up her job in order to balance day care and transportation for the family. Friends of Lanigan, who had supported him in large numbers from the time of his arrest and filled the courtroom during his trial, then contacted me.
I interviewed Lanigan in December 2010. But we still felt that if Lanigan were reimbursed, there would probably be no story. Instead, the district in March 2011 offered less than half what Lanigan was seeking. And in April, the district told him he was being “destaffed” from his new post at South Lakes High School, and would have to reapply for a job elsewhere in the district.
My lengthy article was published in May 2011. The Today show on NBC picked up the story and flew Lanigan and his family to New York for an interview as part of a long segment on the case. Lanigan did an online chat with The Post and readers sent him thousands of dollars. The school district was furious with Lanigan.
But still they refused to settle the case out of court. Lanigan hired a lawyer with long experience in battling the school district, William Reichhardt, and when his negotiations failed, he filed a breach of contract suit in August 2011.
Finally, in June 2012, the two sides settled. It was the final chapter of a saga which could have ended two years, and 141,000 taxpayer dollars, earlier.
Friends of Lanigan are holding a fundraiser for him on Dec. 14 at Sully’s in Chantilly, to help him recoup some of the nearly $60,000 in outstanding costs and fees he says remain from the case.