The Washington Post, Protecting a Young Villain

"Even if she is a "bad seed", we have a duty to make sure nobody knows little Rhoda did those horrible things..."

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.

36 Comments

Filed under Education, Gender and Sex, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, U.S. Society

36 responses to “The Washington Post, Protecting a Young Villain

  1. Thanks for this, Jack.

    Many years ago, I was accused by a (college) student, who oh-so-coincidentally hadn’t been cast in the role she wanted a week earlier, of having tried to sexually assault her. I have no idea what might have transpired if I hadn’t, purely by chance, happened to be talking to a different student in my office at the exact moment I was supposedly molesting someone else somewhere else. I am grateful that the student I actually was with was more credible than the other one.

    And no, my accuser was never punished at all.

    But there’s another insidious element at play here, too. False allegations hurt not only the person accused, but also have a chilling effect on the willingness of real victims of molestation to come forward. I need hardly tell you about the difficulties faced by women who really are assaulted in getting their cases heard, getting people to believe them, and getting to move on with their lives without stigma: witness the Texas cheerleader case you wrote about recently. Mr. Lanigan is a victim, no doubt about it. But so is the next girl in that school who really is assaulted, whether by a faculty member, a coach, or another student: her chances for justice just plummeted.

    • Terrific point about the consequences of false accusations to the willingness of real molestation victims to come forward, Rick.

      And I’m sure glad you ducked that bullet.


    • Many years ago, I was accused by a (college) student, who oh-so-coincidentally hadn’t been cast in the role she wanted a week earlier, of having tried to sexually assault her. I have no idea what might have transpired if I hadn’t, purely by chance, happened to be talking to a different student in my office at the exact moment I was supposedly molesting someone else somewhere else. I am grateful that the student I actually was with was more credible than the other one.


      Tell us her name and the college she attended and the years she attended.

      • Nah. Too long ago. Never went far enough to hurt me, and I tell myself she wouldn’t have followed through even if her story had initially been believed. Post-adolescents do dumb things, and punishing the person they subsequently became for it a generation later doesn’t make any sense. I’m not saying “no harm, no foul,” but at this point I’d just be defaming a middle-aged woman for no purpose. If she turned out to be a good person, hurting her accomplishes nothing good. If she didn’t, the world has had plenty of time to find that out. Besides, as far as I know, she only complained to two people, both of whom have since died–so I couldn’t prove my allegation, either.

  2. Jeff

    What if someone in the know releases her name? What if he did? What if her parents did? What if Anonymous or Wikileaks discovered it and released it?

    Crystal Gail Mangum is the name of the woman who accused the Duke lacrosse thing. That’s a name that shouldn’t be forgotten.

    I hope I’ve made it known that I’m not a fan of cruel hypotheticals, but if my child did something as heartless as this, I would send them to a gulag in Siberia for twenty years and when they get out, they could walk home. There is a reason the ninth circle of Hell is for treachery.

    I have no doubt that, unless her parents have made her life unbearable, she will harm someone else in the large life she has remaining.

  3. We need to have consistent application to anonymity concerning sex crimes.

    The accused’s name should be withheld unless convicted, the accused publicly speaks about the accusation, or flees or attempts to flee prosecution.

    As for this cunt (there is no other appropriate word to describe her), her name needs to be published on the front page of every newspaper.

  4. Fed_Up

    MAN BITES DOG!

    No, I’m not saying that crimes like this should go unreported – but if they were put in their true perspective – well, I guess that would give Micheal, here, an even harder time to apply the word “cunt” to some woman.

    • I don’t ratify or approve of the use of that word in civil discourse, or in this context.

      Your position, however, I find equally offensive. A false accusation against an innocent man has absolutely nothing to do with real rape. And it would be a man-bites-dog story if a teenage girl raped a teacher.

  5. When I shared this on my Facebook profile, I got this comment.

    “Man Bites Dog!” Always makes a better story than reporting on *yet another rape/molestation*. Besides, makes it even easier to dismiss the truth when it rears its ugly head.- Susan Cohen

    Strangely enough, she could not bring herself to actually write anything critical of the accuser in this case.

    This was my latest reply.

    You used the story of a cheerleader who was required to cheer for her alleged rapist as proof that men do this to women on “a constant & regular basis”.

    The fact is that up until 2009, there were NO cases of cheerleaders being required to cheer for their rapists, let alone accused rapists, by name. False accusations are rare, but then so is the abuse of rape victims by the legal system.

    The story was broken by Jack Marshall, who had previously wrote about the cheerleading incident.

    http://ethicsalarms.com/2011/05/03/the-conclusion-to-texas-cheerleading-ethics-cheer-your-rapist-and-youre-not-going-to-like-it/

    Nobody on this comment thread or in the comments of Marshall’s posts defended the school’s actions. And no commenter (as of yet) in Marshall’s article about the Virginia case defended the actions of the accuser.

    • I was sent that comment, actually, sans name, except that it was framed as an attack on you as well. I’m glad you sent it back…it must have been late, because at initial reading it made no sense to me. Now it makes sense, and is just stupid. Is the commenter suggesting that the girl wasn’t lying? That the paper shouldn’t report stories of false rape allegations? Who dismisses rape allegations these days?

      • Who dismisses rape allegations these days?

        Susan Cohen.

        She claimed that these were Man Bites Dog stories.

        And yet, she shared at least two articles concerning the Texas cheerleader case. In one of them, she wrote that this is why we need feminism. In another link she shared, about the Supreme Court’s refusal to take the case, she made a statement of wanting to give Texas back to Mexico, as though that case was the fault of Texas as a whole, or its statewide officials, or that this sort of thing is common in Texas. And she claimed I shared this story in order “to abuse women & likes to dredge up RARE instances of actual wrong-doing by women that are commensurate with what men do to women on a constant & regular basis in order to justify the problem you have with women.” Apparently, , she feels that cheerleaders who are raped are routinely required to cheer their rapists by name.

        • Marlene Cohn

          My approach to feminism and most -isms is, “Treat us just like anyone else.” That means we, too, can be terrible people. Susan Cohen’s comments just don’t hold water; “Treat us equally but don’t you dare acknowledge when a woman does something wrong!”

  6. Marlene Cohn

    I love it. It’s ok to publish the names of “persons of interest,” suspects, and people who have been indicted but not convicted, and effectively ruin their lives, but a malicious little fucker who makes false accusations to the police and an entire community with full knowledge of the ramifications gets to be protected from having her life ruined because she’s a minor?

    Sorry for the vulgarities Jack, but fuck the Washington Post, and fuck the police in Fairfax for their incompetence and not holding this girl legally responsible for filing her false police reports.

    • Sorry for the vulgarities Jack, but fuck the Washington Post, and fuck the police in Fairfax for their incompetence and not holding this girl legally responsible for filing her false police reports.

      Vulgarities are appropriate when discussing behavior beneath the moral plane of the likes of David Duke and Fred Phelps.

      Sorry for the vulgarities Jack, but fuck the Washington Post, and fuck the police in Fairfax for their incompetence and not holding this girl legally responsible for filing her false police reports.

      Could not someone fund the unedited transcripts of the trial and leak her name to the public? This is a scandal as big as the one in Silsbee.

  7. jan chapman

    The vindictiveness of some of the posts is a little surprising. From reading the Washington Post article, it seems some of the vitriol should be directed at the investigating officer, who didn’t really bother to do her job. The reaction of the district administration reveals that they still don’t believe in his innocence, and are responsible for much of the residual punishment he is going through. The twelve-year-old girl is responsible for initiating the false accusation, but we’ve all heard about the studies of adolescents that show that they really have no ability to see the long term ramifications of the things they do, whether it is drinking, pot smoking, pre-marital sex or lying about your gym teacher. Since the article doesn’t say what happens to the accuser, we really have no idea what the consequences for her are. Hopefully, counseling and, as Jack suggests, a healthy amount of skepticism about anything she says until she proves herself to be trustworthy. For now, it’s fine with me if the accuser’s name is withheld to encourage others to report; if not, they may be reluctant to do so just in case the decision goes against them. I do agree with someone who posted earlier that it would be a good idea to withhold both names until a verdict is reached. A certain amount of compassion all around, I guess.

    • I do agree with someone who posted earlier that it would be a good idea to withhold both names until a verdict is reached.

      That was me.

      The other situations for which I would support withholding the accused’s name (besides a guilty verdict) are if the accused discloses the accusation publicly, or if the accused flees the jurisdiction.

    • Marlene Cohn

      Given how we’ve been flooded with stories of how damaging these allegations are, in all forms of media, whether it be news of Law and Order: SVU, I have no sympathy for a 12 year old who chooses to exact revenge in this manner unless it’s been proven that she has a clinically recognized mental problem.

      But you know something? There’s plenty of vitriol to go around. The girl, the police, the school district…they all epically failed in many, many ways.

    • I can only go so far with the callow youth defense. She didn’t make the accusations not knowing how devastating they would be—she did it KNOWING how devastating the would be. Absolutely—the adults blew it, but when little darlings say they’ve been diddled with, the adults always do. How far do we want to go back—the Salem witch trials? Again, it is because the children who are inclined to use such vicious lies know that adults lose perspective that they keep doing this.

      • Again, it is because the children who are inclined to use such vicious lies know that adults lose perspective that they keep doing this.

        Which begs the question of why adults lose perspective over this.

  8. Trafford Gazsik

    Sorry folks I don’t mean to get up on my high horse here, but don’t you think the various US criminal justice systems (not sure which State we are talking about here) might benefit from emulating the British/Commonwealth criminal justice systems and NOT widely report in the media the name and other details of people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial? It is my understanding that in Australia, and other ‘commonwealth’ jurisdictions, journalists would be held in contempt of court for doing so. My understanding of how things are done in the US is that it’s normally a bit of a media circus, with prosecutors and defence attorneys giving television interviews and so forth, before the trial even takes place.

    Indeed there is one television show in particular – To Catch a Predator – that kind of amazes me. Great television and I don’t feel much sympathy for those caught in Chris Hansen’s trap, but talk about making it difficult to get a fair trial … I don’t think it would be allowed back where I’m from.

    My apologies if I have misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the pertinent facts … I am only going on what I have seen on television, movies and so forth – so if I have got something wrong, please excuse me.

    • tgt

      Wasn’t there a big deal about how many of the targets on “To Catch a Predator” were either not prosecuted at all or not convicted?

    • Ah, the First Amendment—can’t live with it, can’t live without it!

      • Ah, the First Amendment—can’t live with it, can’t live without it!

        The Fifth came after the First, so any conflict between the two must be settled in favor of the Fifth.

        What we need is a new constitutional amendment reserving for criminal defendants the right to a confidential trial, provided that this right is implicitly waived if the defendant goes public with the charges, the defendant is convicted, or the defendant flees the jurisdiction.

  9. tgt

    One of my high school teachers, a girls’ soccer coach, was accused of improper conduct with two of his players while he was my teacher. His lawyer (provided by the teachers association) was able to keep him in the classroom and keep the accusations from being widely disseminated. It wasn’t until multiple months later, when the accusers’ stories cracked, and one admitted to having manufactured the allegations, that the situation became public knowledge. While I can probably still name 400 of the 1000 kids in my high school that year and briefly dated one of the girls on the soccer team, I never even heard a whisper of the names of his accusers.

    Even in the best possible circumstances for the wrongly accused, the treatment of the parties and resulting legacy is still highly unbalanced.

    • Also true of workplace sexual harassment cases.

      • tgt

        Accuser: He asks inappropriate questions about my personal life and touches me inappropriately.
        HR goes insane
        Coworkers: He’s a sexual menace!
        Accused: Like I care about her boyfriend. I only asked because at that management seminar you told me to take an interest in my employees’ lives. As for touching, I have vertigo, and often touch random objects and people to steady myself. Like what I did 10 seconds ago to you.
        HR: Oops. Sorry.
        Coworkers: Why is this sexual menace still here?
        Accused sobs quietly in his office

  10. Lianne Best

    I read the article in the Post just before teaching my middle-school Sunday School class this past weekend. My 12,- 13-, and 14-year-olds were all in complete agreement that the accuser in this instance knew what she was doing and deserved deep and lasting punishment. They also agreed that probably the young lady still does not understand the life-altering consequences of her actions and probably is proud that she did in fact “get” her teacher. I like to think they are wrong but am afraid they are right. I don’t think publicizing her name is appropriate, because she doesn’t truly understand, and because that would punish her parents and siblings too, unnecessarily. I fervently hope that the publicity generated by the article causes Fairfax County to reinstate Mr. Lanigan to his original position at his original school, fully pay his legal bills, and encourage the accuser’s parents to take action, if they have not already (were it my child, she would also have been sent to a gulag …). And since Fairfax Co is currently reworking its discipline policies anyway, perhaps they could add a piece regarding false and malicious allegations against teachers and staff ….

    • Don’t you think making her…and her parents….be publicly accountable for such a dastardly deed is the only way to make syre she does understand? I have to say, I’m not all that concerned about the hardship involved if she’s exposed. She still will be getting off easy.

    • tgt

      I don’t think publicizing her name is appropriate, because she doesn’t truly understand, and because that would punish her parents and siblings too, unnecessarily.

      Are you actually serious in the second part of that sentence? I submit that criminal offenders should also be kept secret… we wouldn’t want to punish their parents, siblings, and children, too.

      Also, it’s not clear, do you find punishment of her unnecessary, or just of her family?

  11. Hi
    I have great concern for this next generation who have been brought up entitled and with no need for accountability. I am loather to say that the fear of lawsuits drives much of the current dysfunction in the ed system.

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