The Washington Post has revisited the epically tragic story of Fairfax, Virginia teacher Sean Lanigan, who in 2010 was falsely and maliciously accused of sexual molestation by a vengeful 12-year old girl, launching him into a Kafkaesque sequence of incompetent law enforcement and bureaucratic callousness. Though he was acquitted of all charges, his life, career, personal finances and reputation remain shattered. As for the female student at Centre Ridge Elementary School who set out to destroy Lanigan because he had reprimanded her, the Post does not reveal her name “because she is a minor.”
This is warped ethics, warped journalism, and warped logic. Every day one can read news stories about named elementary, middle school and high school students who have been disciplined for various non-criminal offenses, minor or otherwise. In the case of criminal arrests involving minors, there is a legitimate legal reason for withholding the name of an accused juvenile, for youthful offenses are often expunged or sealed, provided there is a conviction and a sentence served. This story is different, however. No criminal charges have been made, though what the girl did to the teacher was certainly worthy of one. A jury ‘s verdict has shown, and the news media has confirmed, that a girl used the devastating social stigma of child molestation to settle a personal vendetta. I don’t care if she is thirteen or twenty-two; there have to be consequences for such vicious conduct, and being identified by name is just a starting point for her accountability. She needs to apologize, publicly, to her victim. She needs to be known to her teachers, now and for all time, as someone who cannot be assumed to be trustworthy or credible. Allowing her to do what she did to an innocent teacher and hide behind a misapplied journalistic practice only emboldens others like her to try the same despicable tactic.
As it is now, she was 100% successful, wasn’t she? She exacted terrible revenge; her hoax worked. Lanigan had to leave the school, is in debt for legal bills, and will always be looked at with suspicion wherever he goes. And his accuser? Who knows…maybe her parents grounded her for a month. Whatever her punishment was, it isn’t enough—not enough to discourage other false accusers, not enough to make other teachers reluctant to cross that one student in every class who appears to have no conscience.
I understand the Post’s rationale for not publishing the name of a juvenile who accuses an adult of sexual molestation. We don’t want to discourage true victims from keeping mum because they are afraid of publicity, exposure and shame. Nevertheless, the utilitarian trade-off is unworkable. The accused’s name is publicized before any allegations are proven, and the damage that does is permanent, even if he did nothing wrong except come in contact with heartless kid. Every accuser, regardless of age, should realize the seriousness of making such charges, and know that there will be consequences, not just legal but societal, of making them falsely or recklessly.
In addition, the Post’s failure to name Lanigan’s accuser makes him appear less of a victim than he is. The collapse of his life and career wasn’t a random misfortune, as the tone of the Post’s article suggests. It was deliberate and devastating harm, planned and premeditated by one cruel individual out of spite and hate. It is neither just nor fair for the news media to avoid placing as much focus on her miserable conduct as it does on the innocent adult who suffered from it.
Our justice system sentences minors to hard-time prison sentences when the crime is sufficiently heinous. What this girl did to Sean Lanigan is sufficiently heinous that she should be accountable, and accountability begins with you, and I, and everyone she comes in contact with knowing who she is, and what she did to Sean Lanigan.