The state Court of Appeals has denied a former Montgomery County teacher’s plea for a new trial, saying the teacher’s positive reputation has no bearing on a circuit court’s ruling that he sexually abused students.
In 2017, former Cloverly Elementary School teacher John Vigna was convicted of inappropriately touching students over the course of 15 years. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison.
Vigna appealed the conviction, saying his case in Montgomery County Circuit Court excluded positive testimony that he had a “reputation” of “interacting appropriately with children,” violating his right to a fair trial, according to documents filed in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
Vigna also said that the court improperly included records of previous reprimands he received from MCPS and that a colleague’s negative testimony was “hearsay.”
Court of Special Appeals Judges Stuart Berger, Douglas Nazarian and Kevin Arthur ruled unanimously in late July that Vigna’s claims were unsubstantiated.
Vigna’s career with MCPS began in 1992, teaching third through fifth grade at Cloverly. He also coached bocce and baseball at Paint Branch High School, according to court and school records.
“He maintained close relationships with his students long after they left his class, and his colleagues praised his teaching style and entrusted him to look after their own students when they were unable to do so,” according to the appeals court ruling.
But several colleagues expressed concern about how he interacted with students, according to court documents.
One teacher said she spoke with Vigna on “several” occasions about “maintaining appropriate boundaries with students.”
In 2008, a fire marshal observed Vigna holding a child in his lap and reported the incident to then-Principal Melissa Brunson, who issued a verbal warning. Three months later, Vigna was again reported for holding students in his lap, which resulted in a written reprimand that said if the behavior continued, he could be fired.
In 2013, Vigna was removed from the classroom setting for three weeks while MCPS investigated further claims of inappropriate behavior with students. He received another written reprimand, but was allowed to return to his teaching position.
In 2016, one Cloverly student reported that Vigna would have her sit on his lap and would inappropriately touch her in the presence of other students. The student reported Vigna after learning about personal body safety in a fifth-grade class.
“Under the guise of a warm and affectionate teaching style, Mr. Vigna allegedly hugged female students and held them in his lap as he fondled their bodies through their clothing,” according to the Court of Special Appeals ruling.
During Vigna’s criminal trial in 2017, several students testified about similar abuse, dating to 2002.
In court, Vigna disputed claims that he purposely touched students inappropriately. Instead, he attributed his behavior to growing up in a large Italian family that emphasized physical affection. He attributed any contact “that could have been interpreted as sexual” to “accidental touching in the daily classroom shuffle,” according to the Appeals Court ruling.
In his appeal, Vigna said that the court excluded pertinent testimony in his favor and that the past reprimands from MCPS were inappropriately admitted.
Appeals court judges wrote in the opinion that “evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that the person acted in accordance with the character or trait on a particular occasion” and that “sexual predators are not instantly recognizable as the ‘dirty old man in the raincoat.’ ”
The judges also wrote that the previous reprimands were admissible because Vigna has admitted that holding students in his lap was “unprofessional and inappropriate.”
“In light of Mr. Vigna’s ready acknowledgment that he had his students sit in his lap, we fail to see how the prior reprimands created a risk of unfair prejudice that outweighed their probative value substantially, and thus we see no abuse of the circuit court’s discretion in admitting them,” the ruling says.
On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Board of Education agreed to settle a civil lawsuit stemming from Vigna’s conviction.
Attorneys for the school board agreed that the district would pay $500,000 in a settlement agreement, split evenly among two children who filed separate suits. The lawsuits said the school system failed to remove Vigna from the classroom, despite learning of his inappropriate behavior several years prior, putting children at risk for abuse.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org