John Vigna was a star at Cloverly Elementary School, a charismatic, gregarious teacher beloved by children and parents. “Everyone’s favorite,” his principal said. But there was a problem: He had been privately warned about crossing the line with his students.
The popular educator was admonished in 2008 for inappropriately having a child on his lap. Three months later, there was a similar incident, according to court records. After a third complaint in 2013, he signed a pledge to avoid “any physical contact at all” with students.
He stayed in the classroom — but he did not keep his word.
Vigna, 50, was sentenced this month to 48 years in prison for sexually abusing four students over the course of 15 years at the school in Silver Spring, Md. His case underscored a concern that has come up before in Montgomery County schools: Why leave a teacher with a history of suspicious conduct alone with children?
Court testimony and records point to repeated warning signs about Vigna’s behavior over a period of years, raising questions about how well he was supervised, how many incidents are too many and how effective Montgomery is at keeping students safe despite recent efforts to improve child-abuse policy and procedures.
A top district official reprimanded Vigna in 2013, calling his conduct “indefensible, inappropriate and intolerable.” But the district allowed him to keep teaching, even though state officials months earlier had warned that teachers should be removed from contact with students after repeated and “obvious inappropriate” behavior.
Three of Vigna’s four victims were abused after the reprimand, according to testimony at his trial.
“They were tasked with protecting our children, and in my mind, they failed,” said Angela Edwards, whose children attended Cloverly. She called it “inconceivable” that district officials and the school’s principal did not take more forceful action.
One child, now 11, said the teacher frequently touched her chest, butt and vagina during third grade in 2014-2015, according to testimony and evidence heard at trial. Sometimes the touching happened near his desk or at a back table. Sometimes he sat her on his lap as the class watched movies, including episodes of “The Magic School Bus,” she said.
The girl said Vigna told her she was beautiful and that he loved her and touched her “every day in like each week.” Vigna told her he drove by her house when school was on break, she said, looking to see if she was in the yard and noticing that the family camper was gone. “You’re always camping,” she recalled him saying.
Her mother testified the girl developed stomach problems that year and resisted going to school. The situation grew so severe that the mother took the girl to see doctors and get medical tests, not knowing about the teacher’s abuse.
“The secret of what Mr. Vigna had done and was doing to her was literally eating her from the inside out,” prosecutor Danielle Sartwell said.
Vigna denied wrongdoing at his trial, taking the stand to say he had not touched children sexually. “That is simply against the fiber of me,” he said. He said he grew up in a large, caring Italian family, had students on his knee for reassurance and treated children at school like they were his own.
“I wouldn’t want to teach if I couldn’t make those connections,” he said.
His case split his community and packed a courtroom this month. Ardent supporters wore black “#vignastrong” bracelets, but one father called him “a monster of a man.” Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge David A. Boynton said he “couldn’t have agreed more” with the jury’s verdict: guilty on four counts of sexual abuse of a minor and five counts of third-degree sex offense.
But for many, the case goes beyond Vigna. It echoes at least two others in which longtime Montgomery teachers accused of inappropriate conduct remained in classrooms with restrictions against touching children — only to face allegations of doing it again, according to court records and state documents.
Montgomery school system officials declined to comment directly on the Vigna case, citing pending litigation.
Schools Superintendent Jack R. Smith, who took the helm a year ago, said in a statement after the verdict that his thoughts were with the Cloverly community and that he recognized how difficult the case had been. He pointed to improvements in policy and protocols for preventing, recognizing and reporting child abuse.
School district officials have stepped up their emphasis on reporting suspicious conduct, expanded employee training, added lessons for kids on personal “body safety” and created an employee conduct code. They also have increased collaboration with police, prosecutors and social services.
“We have completely redone our child abuse and neglect protections since 2015, recognizing that we had room for improvement,” said Derek Turner, a school system spokesman. “The reality is that we can’t prevent every bad behavior, and that’s why we have training in place, to help recognize bad behavior when it happens.”
Turner said that the school system considers safety the top priority and takes every incident of such conduct seriously among its 23,400 employees.
This month, the district reported that seven employees were suspended without pay after allegations of abuse or neglect in the 2016-2017 school year and 29 resigned, retired or were terminated under similar circumstances. Forty-six others drew reprimands or disciplinary letters, and 180 required a conference or a written warning.
At Cloverly, Vigna was known as a fun-loving teacher who made kids laugh and got them dancing at the Halloween party. He had been at the 480-student school for more than 20 years, teaching third, fourth and fifth grades.
Parents say that Vigna went out of his way to help children and that former students quoted his bits of advice years later. He ran the student safety patrol, emceed the talent show and volunteered for the dunk tank at the spring fair. His wife once worked at the school as a guidance counselor, and his now college-age son attended it.
One Cloverly mother recalled that when class lists were posted each year, there were children who dissolved into tears as they learned they did not get Vigna as their teacher.
When Vigna was charged with sexual abuse in June 2016, it hit Cloverly hard. Many had known he was touchy, and while some parents did not like it — and had warned their children against sitting on his lap — many had thought it was just “who he was.”
Vigna told the court he taught in elementary school because it was the place where “the student spends the most time interacting with the teacher individually, and that would be where you could make your biggest impact on a child’s life.”
He did not deny physical contact with children but said they often initiated it.
“You can try and tell them not to sit on your lap, but if they’re affectionate to you and they have feelings toward you and they feel like that they can count on you, they’re going to come up and hop on your knee whether you want them to or not,” he said. “So it happened with some frequency.”
But testimony and evidence pointed to far more troubling interactions.
In the 2001-2002 school year, a former student — now in her 20s — said she and others kissed Vigna daily on the cheek and that she sat on his lap “a lot.” She recalled in detail that he fondled her vagina as she sat on his lap one day — a moment she said stood out because it was her first feeling of sexual arousal. At 9 years old, in fourth grade, she said she did not understand it.
“I guess in that moment, I just thought, okay, we have such a strong relationship, I just overlooked it,” she testified.
Most of Vigna’s victims did not report him, which experts say often happens because children may not know they are being abused, feel frightened or confused, or blame themselves.
But people from outside the classroom spoke up.
In February 2008, a fire marshal found Vigna, then teaching fifth grade in a portable classroom, with a child on his lap.
He notified the principal, Melissa Brunson, who gave Vigna a verbal warning and told him not to have any student on his lap “at any time,” according to court testimony and documents.
Three months later, it happened again.
A building-service worker became “very upset” when he found Vigna with a girl on his lap, confronting the teacher and saying it wasn’t appropriate, according to prosecutors. Vigna sought to explain, and the men argued loudly in a hallway, prosecutors said. The worker went to the principal’s office to report the incident.
Brunson reprimanded Vigna in writing, saying that he was insubordinate and that his “handling of this situation was improper, unprofessional and must not be repeated.”
But the issue did not go away.
In 2013, a parent reported that the teacher had girls on his lap — three female students on different occasions, according to prosecutors.
This time, a senior official got involved. Larry Bowers, then the system’s chief operating officer, called Vigna’s conduct indefensible in a written reprimand and suggested the teacher get help for his “inability to recognize appropriate behavior.”
“It is difficult to believe that any teacher, especially a veteran teacher, would not understand what is respectful and professional behavior, even after receiving a reprimand,” Bowers wrote in February 2013. Now retired, Bowers did not respond to a request for comment.
Vigna was put on administrative leave for three weeks. On Jan. 24, 2013, he signed a statement, pledging: “I am going to restrict my activities in the classroom to strictly teaching, counseling and advising students and will make every effort to not have any physical contact at all with my students.”
After that, Vigna said, he made “a very conscious effort” to change his teaching style by placing objects near his desk — two filing drawers, two writing shelves — to impede children seeking him out. He tried to keep the door open.
But he considered physical contact part of effective teaching. Like a parent, he said, he would not push children away.
“If a child came up to me . . . and wanted to sit on my knee,” he testified, “I was not going to care what paragraph 2 of Dr. Brunson’s reprimand letter said.”
In 2015, Vigna was disciplined again, this time for having girls around his desk in his personal space, according to prosecutors. Vigna said he wrote a rebuttal. Details were limited.
Testimony from victims suggested that the misconduct was frequent.
One girl, now 10, who had him for reading class in 2015-2016, testified that the teacher would call her to a back table, direct her to sit beside him and lean over in a hug as he touched her butt and vagina while others were elsewhere in the room. “He did it a lot,” she said.
Another girl, now 12, described improper touching over multiple years, according to testimony and evidence heard at trial. Vigna was one of her favorite teachers, she said, and after having him in third grade, she often dropped by his classroom in later years to help him or see him before she caught the bus home.
As she hugged him goodbye, she said, he would often touch her butt. Other times, he placed her on his lap during movies, she said, while other children sat on the carpet, and moved his hands up and down her legs. Sometimes when she was on his lap, he did not let her up, she said.
Everything changed in February 2016, when the girl’s fifth-grade class had a lesson on personal “body safety” that included information about good, bad and confusing touches.
Halfway through, the girl’s demeanor shifted, according to testimony from her teacher and counselor. She slumped in her chair and stared out the window. Finally, she put her head down on her desk.
The educators later asked the girl if something was wrong. Vigna was placed on leave as police began to investigate.
Some at Cloverly say the case poses questions about how their high-performing school system, the state’s largest, handles suspicious conduct. Many assumed that if officials had qualms about Vigna, he would not be left in the classroom. They ask why he was not monitored more closely or reassigned to an administrative job.
“If you get repeated complaints about a teacher, that should be a huge deal,” said Katie Stauss, whose two children attended Cloverly until June. “He should be under a microscope at that point.”
Many parents ask why Vigna was able to teach in a portable classroom after the 2008 reprimand. Brunson testified that she had concerns about him and he was moved into the school building, in a classroom not far from the main office.
But that apparently did not happen right after the 2008 incidents.
Parents recall children being assigned to a portable with Vigna in 2010-2011. Some also question why Vigna was moved in 2011 from fifth grade to third, with younger students. The principal, contacted through district officials, declined an interview.
Brunson testified that she had not reported the 2008 or 2013 incidents to Child Protective Services. State law requires educators to call CPS or police if they suspect abuse. Brunson said she followed the school system’s protocol at the time, contacting human resources.
“I did not identify it as child abuse,” she said.
The Vigna case stands out in part because it came as sensitivities about child-abuse issues were heightened. The Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University went to trial in 2012, attracting national attention.
In Maryland that year, state education officials admonished Montgomery County for keeping a different teacher in direct contact with children after allegations of inappropriate conduct with young students. That teacher was not charged with a crime.
But the Maryland State Board of Education, reviewing the teacher’s record after he appealed his firing, urged school systems statewide to take action to prevent abuse and ensure “there are no cases, like this one, lurking in their schools.”
“Seventeen years passed with patterns repeated and reprimands issued,” the state board wrote in September 2012. “Yet this teacher was transferred to different elementary schools and remained in the classroom. That should never ever have occurred.”
In 2013, concerns arose about another Montgomery case. Lawrence Joynes, a longtime music teacher, was ultimately charged with abusing 15 students, many in kindergarten to second grade, at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring. Joynes pleaded guilty in two cases and was sentenced to a total of 55 years in 2015.
When that case came to light, parents and teachers at New Hampshire Estates reacted angrily, pointing to complaints about Joynes over the years. They voiced alarm as they learned that court documents said that in 2011, Joynes had been forbidden from touching children “in any form.”
Why, they asked, was he left in contact with children if he was not trusted with them?
Montgomery school officials said at the time that such restrictions are often used to document limits that have been set with an employee and build a case for more severe disciplinary action or dismissal if needed.
Nationally, nearly 7 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct that occurs in a physical manner at some time during their school career, according to a 2004 federal report. Most such inappropriate conduct still goes unreported, said Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and author of the report.
Shakeshaft said school systems are improving safeguards but have a long way to go. Employee training and codes of conduct are critical, as are strong procedures for reporting incidents and well-enforced consequences for violations. “If nothing happens, then it’s an empty threat,” she said.
In Montgomery, then-Superintendent Joshua Starr in early 2015 announced the new measures to prevent and respond to child abuse: more training, an employee conduct code and tighter procedures for reporting suspicious conduct.
Volunteers on overnight trips now need background checks, and those directly in contact with students must take training.
While many laud improvements, especially the body-safety lessons that led to Vigna’s arrest, they say more needs to be done to strengthen school culture and staff oversight.
Jennifer Alvaro, a social worker who served the district on a child-abuse working group, assailed the practice of allowing employees with troubling behavior to stay in classrooms under agreements not to touch students.
“The most critical thing you can do when you have a suspicion that somebody is touching children is get them away from children,” she said. “Of all the things they could do to keep kids safe, that’s the most important one.”