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School completes sexual assault investigation into football coach

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
Hanover-Horton High School, where a football coach has been placed on leaving pending a sexual assault investigation

The Hanover-Horton School District’s investigation is done, school administrators are “analyzing” it, and a frustrated community is still waiting to see what will happen to a longtime high school football coach accused of having a sexual relationship with an underage student some 20 years ago.

“In order to keep you informed of the status of our investigation, I wanted to provide you with another update,” Hanover-Horton School Superintendent John Denney told families in a letter sent out Monday.

“Late last week, the investigator completed her investigation. Friday evening, I was provided with a copy of the completed investigation report. Our School Board members have also received copies of the report.

“Over the next several days, we will work to analyze the report in order to map out the next steps in this process. Once we have had the opportunity to fully review the report and have considered all of the strict rules, regulations and due process steps involved, we will take appropriate action.”

It’s been a rough summer for Hanover-Horton Schools, a small, rural community southwest of Jackson. It started when Angela Sturgill, a parent and former student, sent out a public statement accusing teacher and coach Johnnie Stewart of initiating a sexual relationship with her when she was his 16-year-old student.

At first, the district defended its decision to keep Stewart on the job throughout the previous school year, even though administrators were aware the Michigan State Police were investigating Sturgill’s accusations. (The Jackson County Prosecutor ultimately declined to charge Stewart, citing the statute of limitations and “insufficient evidence.”)

Soon after Sturgill’s accusations became public, however, the district reversed course and placed Stewart on leave, pending an investigation. But additional allegations against Stewart emerged, including a female student who told the school in 2015 that Stewart made a sexual comment to her.

Parents and community members were angry and emotional at the most recent school board meeting, calling for administrators to resign and accusing the district of ignoring repeated red flags.

In a letter to students and families, School Board President Gary Schuette said “…[u]pon conclusion of the investigation, the [district’s investigative] report will be available to the public for examination.”

As the next board meeting approaches, Superintendent Denney makes no mention of when the district will announce its next move or release the report.

“Once we have had the opportunity to fully review the report and have considered all of the strict rules, regulations and due process steps involved, we will take appropriate action. Mr. Stewart will remain on leave and we will have a substitute teacher in place for at least the beginning of the school year. Thank you for your continued patience as we work through this difficult situation.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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