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School board fires football coach, in wake of former students' allegations of misconduct

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

Dozens of parents waited restlessly in the school library for an hour, then two, as the Hanover-Horton school board held a closed door meeting to decide whether to fire the football coach.

Johnnie Stewart, a longtime high school football coach and teacher, was accused this summer of starting a predatory, sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student, some 20 years ago. That student, Angela Sturgill, now has children of her own in the district, and says school administrators first learned about the existence of these allegations back in the fall of 2018, though not the details.

The district says it didn’t investigate at the time because Sturgill didn’t file a complaint. School Board President Gary Schuette says the school’s attorneys advised them against taking any action against Stewart, even as the Michigan State Police investigated him.

But residents say they were “shocked” and “hurt” to find out about the allegations when Sturgill came forward publicly in June. Initially, the district defended its decision to keep Stewart on the job, but then put him on leave once Sturgill filed a complaint. Additional allegations swiftly followed, and several angry parents sharply criticized administrators at a recent school board meeting for allowing Stewart to stay on the job during the criminal investigation.

The district announced it had hired an independent investigator to look into Sturgill’s complaints, and announced a special meeting for Monday evening following the investigation's conclusion. Details of the investigation, and its findings, have not yet been released. 

In the spring, the Jackson County prosecutor declined to press charges against Stewart, citing insufficient evidence and an expired statute of limitations. Stewart, for his part, continues to deny all allegations.  

Finally, on Monday night, the board members emerged into the crowded library, which quickly went still. The crowd stayed silent as the board voted, unanimously, to dismiss Stewart. Stewart has 20 days to contest the decision under the district’s tenure policy. Schuette, the board president, said a statement from the district would be coming soon.

As the meeting was adjourned and parents began filing out into the dark parking lot, Angela Sturgill says she is relieved. “We accomplished one more step,” she says, adding that it won’t feel over until Stewart is officially no longer working at the school. “You know, it’s been a long road. You hope for this decision. But it’s good to hear it, out loud.”

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