Circuit Court for Montgomery County No. 130781
Berger, Nazarian, Arthur, JJ.
Vigna was a long-time teacher at Cloverly Elementary, a
public school in Montgomery County. In 2016, several students
reported that Mr. Vigna had touched them inappropriately in
his classroom, dating back as early as the 2001-2002 school
year. 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. He was tried in the Circuit Court for Montgomery
County and, on June 9, 2017, convicted of one count of Child
Abuse, three counts of Sex Abuse of a Minor, and five counts
of Sex Offense in the Third Degree.
Vigna raises primarily evidentiary issues on appeal.
First, he argues that the circuit court improperly
excluded testimony (he describes it as character evidence)
that Mr. Vigna had a reputation in the community for
interacting appropriately with children under his care.
Second, he argues that the circuit court improperly
admitted reprimands he had received in previous school years
for interacting inappropriately with students in the
classroom. Third, he contends that the circuit court
improperly admitted a school counselor's hearsay
testimony relaying one victim's reports of her sexual
abuse. And finally, he argues that the circuit
court's evidentiary rulings violated his right to a fair
trial under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We
disagree and affirm in toto.
Vigna's career with the Montgomery County Public Schools
("MCPS") began in 1992 and ended when the
investigation giving rise to this case led to his dismissal
in 2016. During his time at MCPS, Mr. Vigna taught grades 3-5
at Cloverly Elementary and coached bocce and baseball at
Paint Branch High School. He was widely adored as a teacher
and a colleague. 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.
his positive reputation, some of Mr. Vigna's colleagues
expressed concern about how he interacted with students.
Jennifer Grey,  a fifth-grade teacher, testified that she
had seen Mr. Vigna with students in his lap "[a] handful
of times" and had spoken with him more than once about
maintaining appropriate boundaries with students. Ms. Grey
reported cautioning Mr. Vigna "especially as a male
teacher . . . [not to] be alone with female students
one-on-one, and keep [his] distance." Ms. Grey testified
that she did not believe there was anything sexual about Mr.
Vigna's interactions with his students, but that it
violated professional guidelines and the policies laid out in
MCPS's pre-employment training.
2008, a fire marshal observed Mr. Vigna holding a child on
his lap in his classroom. The fire marshal reported the
incident to then-principal Melissa Brunson, who called Mr.
Vigna into her office and gave him a verbal warning. Three
months later, a building service worker saw Mr. Vigna with
another child in his lap and was upset by what he saw. A loud
disagreement ensued, and Mr. Vigna followed the service
worker down the hall and "[tried] to explain that the
child was upset and that [he] was trying to meet that
child's need at that moment." The incident
nonetheless was reported to Dr. Brunson, who this time gave
Mr. Vigna an official written reprimand and a formal warning
that he could be terminated if his behavior persisted.
Despite the warning, Mr. Vigna acknowledged that he
"continued to hug, to kiss, to have kids in [his] lap
and to have that kind of contact with children" because
"[t]hat was what [he] deemed [to be] an effective
2013, MCPS conducted an investigation into Mr. Vigna's
conduct in response to a parent complaint. This time, Mr.
Vigna allegedly invited three "female students to sit on
[his] lap, lift[ed] them in the air, and dance[d] with them
during class." Mr. Vigna was placed on administrative
leave for three weeks and received another written reprimand,
this time from the Chief Operating Officer of MCPS. Mr. Vigna
wrote a brief response promising to alter his behavior:
I am going to restrict my activities in the classroom to
strictly teaching, counseling and advising students and will
make every effort to not have any physical contact at all
with my students.
2016, A.C. became the first of several victims to
report that Mr. Vigna sexually abused her. Mr. Vigna was
A.C.'s third-grade teacher during the 2013-2014 school
year. When she was in fifth grade, the school counselor,
Heather Sobieralski, conducted a lesson in personal body
safety for A.C.'s class. The lesson included information
about various forms of abuse and how children should get help
if they were mistreated. The lesson included a definition of
sexual abuse: "When someone touches you or asks you to
touch them on the private parts of the body (those parts
covered by a bathing suit), other than to keep you clean
and/or healthy." Both Ms. Sobieralski and A.C.'s
fifth grade teacher, Ms. Grey, noted with concern that
A.C.'s demeanor changed during the lesson. Although
ordinarily an engaged classroom participant, A.C. became
despondent during the body safety class; she slumped down in
her chair and eventually laid her head on the desk. Later
that day, when Ms. Grey and Ms. Sobieralski asked A.C. if she
was okay, A.C. said "You know how we all love Mr. Vigna?
Well, he touches us in ways that makes us feel
reported that Mr. Vigna touches both her and her friend G.G.
"on our butt, and  makes us sit on his lap, and
won't let us get up." In a later interview with a
social worker, A.C. stated that Mr. Vigna's behavior had
gone on for years. The first incident she could recall
occurred during her second-grade year, and the most recent
just a few days before the interview. She reiterated that Mr.
Vigna touched her buttocks and made her sit on his lap. A.C.
said that Mr. Vigna would pull her onto his lap by her hips
and pull her back if she attempted to get up. She said that
he rubbed her thighs with his hands and breathed steadily
more and more heavily the longer she was held on his lap.
When she was not on his lap, she said, his breathing was
normal. A.C. also stated that when she was on Mr. Vigna's
lap she could feel a "hard" part of his body, for
which she did not have the vocabulary, "under her
butt." When asked to locate the body part on an
anatomical drawing, she circled the waistline.
Vigna ultimately was charged with sexual crimes against five
of his former students. Each victim reported a similar
pattern of behavior. All five victims were prepubescent girls
at the time of the alleged incidents, and most testified to
having felt that they had a special relationship with Mr.
Vigna. Each child reported that Mr. Vigna touched their
chests, buttocks, and genitals through their clothing. Most
of the incidents took place with other students in the
classroom and had been concealed by strategic timing and
placement. For example, Mr. Vigna often sat a child on his
lap at his desk while the rest of his students watched videos
at the front of the classroom. He also touched students at
chaotic times, such as the end of the day, as the children
prepared for dismissal.
victim, G.G., reported that she and A.C. frequently went to
say goodbye to Mr. Vigna at the end of the school day. G.G.
described the same pattern that A.C. reported. G.G.
approached Mr. Vigna to say goodbye and give him a hug while
he was seated at his desk. Mr. Vigna then rubbed her buttocks
in a circular motion with one hand during a "side
hug." She also reported that Mr. Vigna rubbed and
squeezed A.C.'s buttocks before they left his classroom.
other victims, A.S. and J.S., are sisters. A.S. was in Mr.
Vigna's third-grade class and reported that Mr. Vigna
touched her weekly, if not more often, in ways that made her
uncomfortable. She reported that he called her to the back of
the classroom during the school day and touched her chest,
buttocks, and genitals over her clothing. He also placed his
hands on her stomach under her clothing. A.S. said that Mr.
Vigna kissed her forehead and told her that he loved her and
that she was beautiful while he held her on his lap.
was in Mr. Vigna's reading class. She, too, reported that
Mr. Vigna would call her to the back of the classroom and,
while hugging her, rub her buttocks and genitals through her
clothing. She stated that "[i]n class he would call me
over to the back table, just me and him, and then he would
make sure I sat right next to him, and then he would start
hugging me. He would start touching my butt."
was an adult at the time of trial. She was Mr. Vigna's
student in fourth grade and stated that she was "very
close with him;" she remembered "having a bond with
him that [she] didn't have with other teachers."
L.D. contacted the police after she saw an article on
Facebook describing others' allegations against Mr.
Vigna. She reported that Mr. Vigna sexually abused her during
the 2001-2002 school year, and she recounted events similar
to those alleged by the younger victims:
[A]t the end of the day, while we're waiting for the
buses, he would have me and my former classmate , I would
sit on one leg and . . . she would sit on the other leg, but
it wasn't like Santa Claus style. It was like horseback
ride style. So, I remember like we would lean back, and his
hands would be on our, . . . like on our legs. And I remember
one specific instance where he was talking to some boys
across the desk, and every time he talked, I felt his finger
on my crotch. And I remember this so well, even though it was
so many years ago, because I felt sexually aroused when that
happened. I felt like that tingly sensation, and that's
when I knew something wasn't right.
described "a routine" for Mr. Vigna's class, in
which she "ha[d] to give him a kiss on the cheek every
single day before we left to go ride our bus." She also
said that on one occasion, Mr. Vigna instructed her to change
her clothes in a closet in his classroom with the door ajar
and that she felt very uncomfortable.
five victims testified at trial, as did several of Mr.
Vigna's former colleagues, including Ms. Sobieralski, Ms.
Grey, and Dr. Brunson. Mr. Vigna also testified in his own
defense, and he denied categorically that he ever touched a
student for his sexual gratification. He testified that
touching children inappropriately was "simply against
the fiber of [him]." He did not deny that he often
hugged children, had them sit on his lap, kissed them, and
told them that he loved them:
MR. VIGNA: I told all of my students that I loved them. I
believe that you had to love them to lead them and if they
knew that then they would follow you to new heights
academically and socially.
MR. VIGNA'S COUNSEL: There has been testimony that on
occasion you kissed a student on the forehead or on the top
of the head or a student kissed you on the cheek. Did that
MR. VIGNA: Yes, I would go back and blame that on my Italian
MR. VIGNA'S COUNSEL: And did any of those incidents about
which we have just been speaking did that involve any attempt
to sexually exploit any of the students in your class?
MR. VIGNA: Absolutely not.
Vigna attributed much of his behavior to growing up in a
large Italian family that emphasized physical affection. He
said he viewed his students as his family and would not want
to carry on teaching if he could not show them love and
physical affection. Mr. Vigna also acknowledged that he had
failed to comply with his agreement not to have physical
contact with his students, and stated repeatedly that the
students initiated the hugs and lap-sitting. "[T]hey are
little kids," he explained, "[s]o you can try and
tell them not to sit on your lap but . . . they are going to
come up and hop on your knee whether you want them to or
not." He attributed any contact that could have been
interpreted as sexual to accidental touching in the daily
jury convicted Mr. Vigna of nine of the fourteen counts
charged. He later was sentenced to eighty years in prison,
all but forty-eight suspended. Additional facts will be
provided below as needed.
Vigna challenges three of the circuit court's evidentiary
rulings on appeal. He contends first that the trial
court erred when it excluded, under Maryland Rule
5-404(a)(2)(A), evidence of his character, specifically his
character for interacting appropriately with children.
Second, he argues that his 2008 and 2013 reprimands
for inappropriate physical contact with his students were
improperly admitted as prior bad acts evidence under Maryland
Rule 5-404(b). Third, he argues that the trial court
improperly admitted A.C.'s complaint to Ms. Sobieralski
under Maryland Rule 5-802.1(d). And he argues
finally that the circuit court's decisions to
admit his prior reprimands while excluding his proffered
character evidence violated his right to a ...