Family Sues MCPS After Silver Spring Teacher’s Conviction in Sexual Abuse Case
School officials should have done more to protect children, complaint alleges
Via Montgomery County Police Department
Attorneys representing a 12-year-old girl have filed a lawsuit against the Montgomery County school system, alleging that officials failed to protect elementary-age students from a Silver Spring teacher with a known pattern of sexually harassing children.
A complaint lodged Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court claims that public school officials in 2008 and 2013 learned that John Vigna, a teacher at Cloverly Elementary School, was holding students in his lap, attorney Jeff Herman said.
“That’s what we call a red flag,” he told reporters Thursday afternoon outside the Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters. “Warning signs must be adhered to. What they’re warning us of is that this teacher may be unsafe to be around kids.”
However, Vigna, 50, was allowed to continue teaching and was arrested last year on charges of sexually abusing students, according to the complaint. He was convicted of sexual abuse in June after five former students accused him of touching them inappropriately, and a judge earlier this month sentenced him to 48 years in prison, according to radio station WTOP.
Vigna was placed on administrative leave immediately after the sexual abuse allegations were reported in February 2016, according to MCPS.
An MCPS spokeswoman declined to comment directly on the litigation and referred to a statement released following Vigna’s conviction.
“Our thoughts are with the Cloverly Elementary School community. I recognize that this has been an extremely difficult time for many students, families and staff members. I express my deepest gratitude to the community for its patience and unwavering commitment to our students throughout this process,” Jack Smith, who became MCPS superintendent in early 2016, said in a prepared statement.
The civil complaint against the school system focuses on Vigna’s interactions with a young girl he taught in the third grade at Cloverly Elementary. The court filing accuses Vigna of holding the girl on his lap and touching her inappropriately during movie time in class.
The document claims that when the girl was in fourth and fifth grade, the abuse escalated. Vigna invited the student to help him with his third-grade class, luring her by buying her candy, gifts and books or by paying for field trips, according to the complaint.
The girl reported the abuse in 2016 after she learned about inappropriate touching in one of her fifth-grade classes, the document claims.
The initial complaint demands more than $75,000 in compensation from the school system on the grounds that officials violated federal laws establishing a student’s right to freedom from sexual harassment and abuse.
According to the suit, MCPS is at fault because the system should have done more to address reports of Vigna’s sexual misconduct. The 2008 allegations resulted in a letter of reprimand, while the 2013 allegations prompted officials to remove Vigna from the classroom for three weeks and reprimand him again, according to the suit. After the second report of inappropriate conduct, he was transferred from teaching third-graders in a portable classroom to a fifth-grade class that was inside the main school building, where his supervisors could keep an eye on him, the complaint stated.
But they should have also taken other corrective steps, such as firing Vigna, giving him a long-term suspension or shifting him to a position that didn’t involve interaction with students, according to the plaintiffs.
“As a result of the school board’s failure to properly investigate, supervise and protect students in response to actual notice, it needlessly endangered students,” the complaint stated.
Herman said he believes that victims of sexual abuse deserve to be awarded millions of dollars in damages. However, he said he didn’t know how much plaintiffs would seek in this case.
During the press conference, he read a statement prepared by the girl’s family, who now live in Crownsville.
“[S]he will pay for the rest of her life with horrible memories of elementary school, what should have been some of the happiest, carefree days of her life,” the parents’ statement read.