Family, colleagues, former students and parents of victims of a longtime Montgomery County teacher crowded a courtroom Friday in two distinct camps as the now former teacher faced sentencing on child sex abuse charges.
John Vigna was sentenced to 48 years in prison at the hearing where supporters wore black bracelets that read #vignastrong as they listened to one parent of a victim repeatedly call Vigna “evil” and a “monster.”
Minutes after Circuit Court Judge David Boynton read the sentence, Vigna looked at his wife Anita, sitting in the front row with their son, and shook his head.
A jury in June found Vigna guilty of four counts of sex abuse of a minor and five counts of third-degree sex offense in an investigation that began when an 11-year-old, who had taken a “body safety” class that taught students to identify signs related to good, bad and confusing touches, reported Vigna had been inappropriately touching her for 18 months.
His conviction involved four victims, prosecutors said.
“I’ve seen many, many good people come before me who have done really bad things,” Boynton said. “I couldn’t have agreed more with the verdict in the case.”
Boynton said Vigna had been given verbal and written reprimands to change the way he interacts with children.
Vigna taught at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring for more than 20 years before he was put on administrative leave in 2016.
Vigna, who testified during the trial, has not wavered from his not guilty plea. On Friday, he asked the judge to consider his “merit as a human being and that my life is not just the sum of the jury’s verdict.”
Police documents show Vigna forced a student to sit on his lap, holding her when she tried to leave and squeezing her buttocks sometimes when she hugged him goodbye. Vigna also improperly rubbed a female student when hugging her, according to the documents.
Although most of the incidents were from recent years — two girls said they were sexually abused at school in the 2015-16 school year and 2013-14 school year — one woman in her 20s reported Vigna sexually abused her when she was a student in the 2000-2002 school years.
The sentencing hearing attracted so many people the courtroom reached capacity and had to be closed to people still waiting to get in.
A host of letters also were sent to Boynton which the judge said he spent hours reading that said “nothing but the most exemplary things.” But the judge emphasized he has seen teachers, counselors and religious leaders who are highly respected, yet found guilty of serious crimes.
“We know he would never harm a student. It goes against every fiber of his being,” Anita Vigna told the judge Friday. “He was and continues to be an affectionate man. That will not change, but sadly it has brought about the demise of his treasured teaching career.’’
But prosecutors argued it is not uncommon for sex offenders to be friendly and charismatic.
“I’m sure that Mr. Vigna was kind and nice to many of his students but he also acted improperly,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said outside court. “These kids are having a hard time.”
Two parents of victims spoke about the palpable effects of what they called Vigna’s predatory contact with their children. The parents said their children are dejected and considered outcasts in the community for bringing up the allegations against Vigna.
In statements read by prosecutors, one girl wrote “I am embarrassed and I am ashamed.” Another wrote, “I’m also having thoughts about dying … I cry a lot.”
The families of the victims were escorted from the courtroom through a crowd of more than 30 people, many donning white #vignastrong T-shirts once they left the courtroom. Some of Vigna’s supporters yelled “I love you John.”
Toni Patton, 33, knows Vigna as her former fourth grade teacher, a mentor and the man who inspired her to become a teacher herself.
The paper with her statement shook as she held back tears in front of the judge. “He was blessed with a fatherly nature,” said Patton who teaches first grade in Baltimore. “He created a place where children knew they were loved.”
Vigna had taught for the school system since 1991 and helped run the after-school computer club and the school’s student safety patrol.