School: We had "insufficient grounds" to remove teacher accused of sexual assault
Hanover-Horton school officials chose not to remove a teacher accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old student, even as that allegation was investigated for months by the Michigan State Police, because the district’s lawyers told them not to.
That’s the message school board President Gary Schuette sent in a letter to students and families on Saturday. The small community south of Jackson has been hit by a series of controversies in recent weeks involving high school teacher and football coach Johnnie Stewart.
In his letter, Schuette defends the decision not to put Stewart on leave late last year. That’s when officials learned that a former student, Kevin Sturgill, was sending threatening emails to Stewart, accusing him of initiating a sexual relationship with Sturgill’s wife, Angela Sturgill, when she was a student of Stewart’s some 20 years ago.
“[Superintendent John] Denney immediately questioned Mr. Stewart about the allegation; Mr. Stewart denied the allegation was true,” board president Schuette says in the letter. “However, Mr. Denney believed it was necessary to investigate further.”
The district then reached out to its lawyers, Schuette says.
“After explaining the situation, Mr. Denney was informed that without a statement from Mrs. Sturgill, the district did not have grounds to place Mr. Stewart on leave, and lacked evidence sufficient to investigate,” Schuette says. “Mr. Denney communicated this information to me, and I questioned whether or not we needed to take additional steps.”
A second law firm also gave them the same advice, he says.
But that directly contradicts a memo from the Michigan Department of Education sent to K-12 administrators last year. In it, the state superintendent tells school officials that when it comes to possible sexual assault or harassment, “action is required.”
“Schools and Title IX coordinators also must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate and determine the circumstances surrounding alleged instances of sex discrimination,” the memo reads. “This is critical. All Michigan districts need to monitor outcomes, identify patterns, and assess the effects on school climate to avoid systemic failures.”
Reached by phone Sunday evening, Schuette says neither he nor anyone else from the district ever reached out to Angela Sturgill, or her husband, to ask for additional information about her allegation.
"The [alleged] victim has to be the one who is ready to come forward," Schuette told Michigan Radio, adding he didn't want her to feel pressured to report if she wasn't ready. "What if she is, or she isn't, or [what if] we're where we now file a compalint, and she says 'No, nothing happened [with Stewart,]' and then later she is ready [and says something did happen]? We would have damaged her credibility."
Still, in Schuette's public letter, he says the superintendent was “concerned about the allegations” and “reviewed Mr. Stewart's personnel file, contacted past principals, superintendents, and other administrators. Mr. Denney found nothing to suggest a complaint of this nature had ever been filed against Mr. Stewart.”
A previous complaint against Stewart
But in fact, a complaint of this nature had been filed against Stewart as recently as 2015. That’s when a 16-year-old girl says she told officials Stewart hit on her in the school gym. “I can’t wait until you’re 18,” she recalls Stewart saying, “because of all the things he could legally, physically do to me.”
At the time, Stewart was her sponsor for the National Honor Society. The district agreed to remove him and provide her with a different sponsor, she and her family say, and told Stewart not to have any further contact with her. Her father also spoke with superintendent Denney about the incident.
Superintendent Denney didn't mention whether this incident is included in Stewart's file, Schuette tells Michigan Radio. But it wouldn't have been "relevant" either way, he says, as it didn't directly relate to Angela Sturgill.
Asked if elements of the 2015 complaint would point to a possible pattern of Stewart's, Schuette said he only knew about the 2015 complaint secondhand, and from what he'd heard, Stewart had told the girl "I can't wait until you're 18." "From what I understand, the girl thought it was sexual, but [Stewart] said he meant he was tired of the [teenage] drama," Schuette said.
Police launch a criminal investigation
Within days of hearing about Sturgill's allegations against Stewart in late 2018, the district learned the Sturgills had filed a criminal complaint with the Michigan State Police.
“Mr. Denney was able to confirm with MSP that a complaint had been filed, but was not provided the substance of the complaint,” Schuette says. Both men then met with the district’s lawyers again, “to determine if the district’s legal position had changed now that a report had been filed. It had not, as the district lacked the necessary information relative to the details of the complaint.”
No one from the district reached out to either of the Sturgills to ask for details about their criminal complaint, Schuette tells Michigan Radio. In his letter sent to families on Saturday, the school board president says they believed Stewart was not a "threat."
“Without sufficient grounds to suspend Mr. Stewart, and no apparent threat to the safety of the students, Mr. Stewart was allowed to continue teaching,” Schuette says in his public letter. “Mr. Denney communicated to the board, that he would obtain a copy of the MSP report as soon as it became available, and he would take the appropriate steps to investigate upon receipt.”
But why not just put Stewart on paid leave while the criminal investigation played out? On Sunday, Schuette said there were "a lot of reasons," for keeping Stewart on the job. "What if we were to do something like that [putting him on leave,] and it ends up being outside the teacher tenure act, or outside the fireable offense [policy?]" Schuette told Michigan Radio.
Asked if he or anyone else from the district inquired into whether putting Stewart on leave would violate policy, Schuette said he couldn't disclose details about their legal discussions. But he did say the district's lawyers weren't concerned about Stewart suing the school.
Stewart eventually put on leave, 6 months after district learns of complaint
But it appears neither school officials, nor Angela Sturgill, were informed when the Michigan State Police investigation ended in May. The Jackson County prosecutor declined to press charges against Stewart, citing an expired statute of limitations and “lack of sufficient evidence.”
Instead, Stewart kept teaching until June of this year, at least six months after school officials say they became aware of the allegations. That's because on June 19th, Angela Sturgill put out a press release through her attorney, publicly asking the district to investigate Stewart:
“I could no longer keep silent knowing that my and other kids are still exposed to this man. I know what I know. Johnnie Stewart used his position of authority to press me into a sexual relationship when I was a kid, and he needs to be held accountable.”
District superintendent Denney sent out his own press release the following day, defending the decision to keep Stewart at the school.
"At this time, no formal/informal complaint has been provided to the District relative to Mr. Stewart nor have any charges been filed against Mr. Stewart. As such, no action has been taken by the District relative to Mr. Stewart’s status as an employee of the District."
Three days later, on June 23rd, Denney sent out another statement, saying the district had now received a "formal complaint" and was putting Stewart "a non-disciplinary paid administrative leave" while the school investigated.
Within a week, two alums came forward with additional allegations against Stewart. Sara Pienta told Michigan Radio she remembers seeing Stewart openly kissing Sturgill at a high school party when both women were students. Stewart was their teacher, Pienta says, and told her to “keep [her] mouth shut.”
Another former student, Nate VanEpps, says another female classmate told him she was having a romantic relationship with Stewart, who was then their teacher. VanEpps says he confronted Stewart, who threatened to “kick [his] ass” if VanEpps reported him. Both Pienta and VanEpps say Stewart’s sexual relationships with female students were an “open secret” within the community.
A public meeting Monday night
In his letter to families sent over the weekend, school board president Gary Schuette says the district's investigation into Stewart continues.
“Upon conclusion of the investigation, the report will be available to the public for examination,” he says. “This is a very unfortunate situation. The BOE wants the Hanover Horton community to know that we are committed to properly investigating this matter and taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety of the students and the rights of all parties involved are protected.”
Meanwhile, district officials face mounting criticism for their handling of the allegations.
"While I hope this District will start making student-safety oriented decisions, this latest statement [from Schuette] gives little hope," says Sarah Prescott, an attorney representing Angela Sturgill. "So far its approach has been to staunchly avoid a search for the truth, asking no questions as the red flags pile up. How many girls have been subject to unwanted sexual advances from a teacher, while the administration pretended they had no clue? Here is a reality: at some point cluelessness [sic] is itself the problem, not an excuse."
The school board will hold its regularly scheduled meeting Monday night. A couple residents have created a Facebook event page to organize with others who plan to share their concerns at the meeting. Angela Sturgill says she and her husband plan to attend, "but at this time do not plan on making a statement."
This story was last updated July 22, 2019 at 11 am.