A “body safety” class for elementary school students in Montgomery County prompted an 11-year-old girl to report how a longtime teacher at the school allegedly had been improperly touching her for 18 months, according to recently filed court documents.
The girl’s disclosure led to a police investigation, which led to county detectives speaking with the girl and with a friend. On Monday, police charged third-grade teacher John Vigna, 49, with two counts of sexual abuse of a minor and five counts of third-degree sexual offense, authorities said.
Vigna had taught at Cloverly Elementary School for 24 years before being put on administrative leave this year. He also helped run an after-school computer club and the school’s student safety patrol.
According to a police document filed in court Monday, Vigna forced one of the students to sit on his lap and held her there when she tried to leave. He also allegedly squeezed her buttocks at times when she hugged him goodbye. With the other student, Vigna is alleged to have improperly rubbed her while hugging her.
“I know that you agree that the behavior alleged in the charging document is both disturbing and disappointing,” Melissa Brunson, Cloverly’s principal, wrote in a letter to students’ parents Monday, adding that such actions “will not be tolerated or ignored.”
Vigna turned himself in to authorities Monday morning. He was booked at the county jail and released on bond later in the day. Vigna could not be reached by phone or email, and court records do not indicate whether he has retained an attorney.
Vigna began working for the school system in 1991at Cloverly Elementary, near the intersection of Briggs Chaney Road and New Hampshire Avenue. In a 2001 article in the Montgomery County Gazette, Vigna spoke about creating writing assignments designed to help students highlight caring behaviors.
“I spend a lot of time with them on developing their character,” Vigna said in the article.
He also helped on variety shows, according to a Cloverly PTA posting. Late last year, the PTA approved a motion to give Vigna up to $200 toward a new rocking chair for his classroom, according to meeting minutes.
With an enrollment of 466 students, Cloverly is a diverse school — 30 percent white, 23 percent black, 21 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian, and 9 percent two or more races. In recent years, Vigna also spent time at Paint Branch High School, where he was as a junior varsity baseball coach during the 2014-15 school year, and was the school’s bocce coach from 2011 to 2015, according to school officials.
In February, an 11-year-old student at Cloverly took a standard “personal body safety class,” which consists of three 45- to 60-minute lessons. Among the objectives: “Identify feelings and physical signs associated with good, bad and confusing touches.”
Similar classes have been around for a while but have been emphasized since last year, when policy and practices on recognizing and reporting child abuse were revised, said Derek Turner, a Montgomery schools spokesman.
After the class, the student then told a teacher about the alleged behavior by Vigna. Detectives were informed and talked to the girl, who told them the events dated back 18 months and included times when the student was not in Vigna’s class but had stopped by at the end of the day to say goodbye to him, according to police charging documents.
On one such visit, the student told detectives, a friend of hers, who is 11, accompanied her. .
“The children in the classroom were talking or playing, not paying attention to them,” detectives wrote. “Vigna was at his desk. When [the friend] hugged him, Vigna used his hand to touch and rub [her] buttocks.”
Susan Burkinshaw, a Montgomery County parent and member of a district-created group that examined child-abuse issues last year, said the case points to the critical role of awareness in schools. “It completely underscores how important uniform training is and that we all need to speak the same language — students, parents, teachers, administrators — and know how to report incidents,” she said.
In her letter to Cloverly parents, Brunson emphasized that school officials placed Vigna on leave as soon as they were made aware of the allegations. Details were not broadly shared, the principal wrote, to avoid prejudicing the investigation. “We take the safety and security of our students seriously,” she wrote, “and we will continue to work every day to ensure that we are providing a safe learning environment.
Investigators are asking anyone with information about Vigna to call 240-773-5400.