WASHINGTON — The Montgomery County Board of Education is being sued for millions of dollars in connection with a teacher who was convicted of child sex abuse.
In announcing the suit, Jeff Herman, a Florida lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases involving children, said Thursday “the school system here has failed miserably at protecting its students” from John Vigna, a former teacher at Cloverly Elementary School, in Silver Spring, Maryland, who was convicted of nine counts of sexual abuse in June and was sentenced to 48 years in prison last week.
Herman said he had filed a Title IX suit on behalf of family of one of the victims, who is now 12. He didn’t specify how much the family was seeking, but said it was in the millions.
Herman said Vigna had been reprimanded in 2008 for putting children on his lap.
“That’s what we call a red flag,” Herman said.
Herman said Vigna was only reprimanded at the time.
Similar allegations surfaced in 2013, the lawsuit claims, and Vigna was removed from the classroom for three weeks. The victim whose family filed the lawsuit was first molested during the 2013-2014 school year, the lawsuit said.
“He put her on his lap; he groomed her; he touched her; he molested her” throughout third grade, Herman said. Vigna then invited her to visit him in his classroom fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, bought her candy, books and other gifts, and continued to molest her.
The victim in the suit was the student who sparked the investigation; in a class about “bad touch” in February 2016, she began acting strangely, putting her head down on her desk. Instructors talked to the student and found out that she had been inappropriately touched.
Herman read a statement from the family to the school board, saying in part, “What you have done to my child is reprehensible. You allowed a predator full access to her and other children, knowing fully what he is. I sent my child to what was supposed to be a No. 1 school, a sweet, innocent child, and you put her in the hands of a monster.”
“In keeping your secrets, she will pay for the rest of her life with horrible memories of elementary school, which should have been some of the happiest, carefree days of her young life. She was strong enough to bring your ugly secret to light.”
The statement claimed that other victims had been driven out of the community by shame and controversy, but that “We will not go quietly into the night.”
“This little girl for the rest of her life will be haunted by these memories,” Herman said. “We hope her healing will begin, but her first sexual experience will always be being molested by Mr. Vigna.”
Looking for a pattern
Herman said that during the discovery process, he’ll not only look for documents related to the Vigna case, but also would go back “five to 10 years” to find other cases in which teachers with reprimands on their records were allowed back into the classroom.
“One of the things we’re going to be looking at in this case is … how far this spreads out — why there is a pattern here in Montgomery County” of letting “potentially unsafe” teachers in the classroom with children, Herman said.
“To me it’s ridiculous; it’s certainly unsafe, and it’s not OK,” he said.
Herman said he filed a federal Title IX suit. He will also file a negligence suit. He said damages in negligence suits are capped at $100,000, but that no such cap exists for federal Title IX suits.
“By allowing teachers into the classroom that have reprimands for unsafe behavior, it’s not a matter of if a child will be sexually abused, but when.”
Herman said he had been contacted by other victims about representing them. “We’re investigating other cases and we’ll see how that goes.”
The school system said it wouldn’t comment on the pending case, but after Vigna was convicted, Superintendent Jack Smith said Vigna had been placed on administrative leave after allegations were reported in February.
WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report.