Students testify in molestation trial of Centreville teacher Sean Lanigan

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sean Lanigan sat quietly in a Fairfax County courtroom Tuesday, watching as the testimony of elementary school students either destroys or saves his career.

Lanigan, 43, was a popular physical education teacher and soccer coach at Centre Ridge Elementary School in Centreville until January. He was a "touchy-feely" teacher, often picking up kids and swinging them around, playing games, joking, having fun, his lawyer said.

Then he was arrested and charged with abduction and aggravated sexual battery, for allegedly molesting a 12-year-old sixth-grade girl in the Centre Ridge gym Jan. 12.

The girl testified for nearly two hours Tuesday, much of it under cross-examination by experienced defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun. She said Lanigan picked her up in the middle of the gym, with her best friend standing next to her, briefly touched her breast, and then carried her to an equipment room, where he laid her down on a mat and briefly touched her buttock.

The girl's friend later testified that she didn't see any inappropriate touching and thought the incident was just more of Lanigan's regular fooling around.

Under cross-examination, the accuser said she was angry at Lanigan because he threatened to discipline her for bullying other students and told her he could remove her from the safety patrol. She also said she was unhappy with him because he did not play her favorite music in gym class.

Lanigan, married and a father of three, has been suspended without pay since his Jan. 29 arrest. He faces from one to 20 years in prison if convicted on the sexual battery charge. The trial will continue Wednesday in Fairfax County Circuit Court before Judge Charles J. Maxfield.

Besides teaching at Centre Ridge since 1998, Lanigan is a renowned soccer coach, both on youth travel squads and at Herndon High School. A group of 40 friends and family members showed up to support him on Monday, when jury selection occupied an entire day. The issue of whether panelists believed it was wrong for a teacher to pick up children often determined if they were seated for the trial. A jury of eight women and four men, with a male alternate, was selected.

The case has showcased the rarely seen situation of 10- to 12-year-old girls taking the witness stand, being questioned carefully by Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Pavluchuk, and then with slightly less intensity than usual by Greenspun.

The accuser said she was standing in the middle of the gym with her friend near the end of the school day when "he, like, just grabbed me" by the hips and tossed her over his shoulder. She and other girls said Lanigan often did this and had done it before. She was a member of "PE Pals," a group of four students who volunteer to clean up the gym in exchange for free playtime there.

As Lanigan lifted her up, the girl said, he touched her breast for "a few seconds." Then he took her to an equipment room and laid her down, touching her buttock as he did, the girl said.

Then "he started massaging me on my shoulders," the girl testified. She said Lanigan said "he was going to treat me like a queen." When she tried to get up, she said, Lanigan pushed her back down. When she said she had to leave for bus patrol duty, he let her go.

The girl acknowledged that Lanigan, the head of safety patrols, had twice spoken to her after receiving complaints from parents that she had cursed and bullied smaller children on her bus. She also faced losing her job as an anchor girl on the in-school TV news station in the morning, and her spot in PE Pals.

A 10-year-old fellow student testified that the accuser told her that "she was trying to get him fired because she didn't like him." The 10-year-old also said that the accuser admitted to her that she lied about the incident, and said, "Don't tell anyone."

The most sensational original allegation, contained in a Fairfax police press release, was that Lanigan lay on top of the girl. That was not mentioned at trial. The girl denied that allegation in a March preliminary hearing.

The accuser's close friend, also 12, said she followed Lanigan and the girl to the equipment room, thinking it was all in fun. She said she heard Lanigan's comment about "treat you like a queen" but never saw inappropriate touching.

A physical education teacher who visits the school three times a week, Lisa Langley, said the equipment room to which the girls claimed Lanigan carried the accuser was not big enough for a mat to lie flat on the floor.

Greenspun noted in his opening statement that for the jury to convict Lanigan, they had to find that he had sexual intent. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Pavluchuk said that besides the touching, Lanigan "carried her into that room against her will, and he kept her there."

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