“[It is] more likely than not that [longtime teacher and football coach] Johnnie Stewart engaged in a sexual relationship with Angela Campbell Sturgill when she was a student at Hanover-Horton High School,” an investigation released by the school district on Friday says.
That report comes after a painful summer for the small community near Jackson. In June, Angela Campbell Sturgill came forward to accuse Stewart of initiating a sexual relationship with her in 1998, when she was his 16-year-old student aide. Current school administrators learned of those accusations back in the fall of 2018, but allowed Stewart to stay on the job for months, even as the Michigan State Police investigated him.
Stewart denies the allegations, and in May, the Jackson County prosecutor declined to charge him, citing an expired statute of limitations and insufficient evidence. But soon after Sturgill’s story was reported this summer, administrators put Stewart on paid leave while the district conducted its own investigation. Michigan Radio reported on additional allegations against Stewart, including from one former student who made a complaint about him in 2015.
According to the district’s investigation, several other current and former students had similar experiences.
“Further, given the information provided about Mr. Stewart's more recent statements and actions [including whispering to a female student doing squats, “I could make your legs shake like that,” texting a student to come over to his house because his wife was out of town and he was lonely, and having a female student wearing short gym shorts “bend over in front of the class...so he could use her back as a desk”] it is likely that a sexually charged hostile environment presently exists within the school…”
On Monday, the school board voted unanimously to terminate Stewart. His criminal attorney, Alfred Brandt, declined to comment on the district’s investigation, and Stewart’s other attorney did not respond to a similar request. As a tenured teacher, Stewart has the option to contest the charges.
For Campbell Sturgill, the woman who came forward in June, the investigation is a tough read.
“To have this many people come forward, I was just extremely grateful, because you know it took them a lot of courage to do so,” she says. “But I was also disgusted by what I was reading. These poor girls, these are, you know, sounds like recent girls. They’re just so young. It’s sickening.”
Her attorney, Sarah Prescott, says Stewart was allowed to prey on young girls.
“[H]e must never teach or coach anyone ever again,” she says via email.
“It is a crying shame that this was allowed to go on as it was, and we all hope that this District will turn the page completely...To have claimed publicly that there was no 'formal or informal' complaint about Johnnie Stewart before Ms. Sturgill was just a flat out lie, as this report underscores. School leadership owes this community some explanation and accountability.”
Report: decades of red flags and “open secrets”
For twenty years, Hanover-Horton students, staff and administrators had concerns about longtime high school teacher and football coach Johnnie Stewart, or “Stew,” as they called him.
There was the Stew students knew in the late 90’s: the young teacher who brought cases of beer to their parties, where he openly made out with 16-year-old Angela Campbell (now Angela Campbell Sturgill) in a hot tub one time. It was an “open secret” they were in a sexual relationship, several former students told the school investigator, and they just assumed the school staff knew about it, too.
“Some stated that no one reported it at the time because they did not see anything wrong with it,” the district’s investigator, Diane Fenby, says in the report. “[T]hey felt...Stew was one of them, included him in their social lives and treated him more as a peer than a teacher.”
One staff member, who isn’t named in the investigation, recalls hearing a student pound on a door in the hallway, “yelling about someone sleeping with his girlfriend.” When the staff member and another school employee spoke with him, the student apologized, and said, “I am trying to find my girlfriend and I’m pretty sure he is screwing her.” Soon after the student left, the staff member saw Stewart and Campbell come out of that door.
Then there was the Stew the teachers and administrators saw: the guy who raised some eyebrows and got the occasional wrist slap for meeting with female students behind a locked door, or keeping a couch in his office.
“There was a staff member that tried to get through that locker room door when I was in there [with Stewart] once, and it was locked,” Campbell Sturgill says. “So you have two staff members trying to get through a locked door...that’s definitely, I mean, how many people does it take to try to walk through that door with female students behind it? That’s definitely a red flag.”
There was the Stew of more recent years, too, who was “like a dad” to some students and a “role model” for others. But others tell Fenby that Stewart made comments like, “You have an ass a grown woman would die for,” or asked them if they were virgins in front of another male teacher.
In 2015, Lindsey Meckley says Stewart told her “he could not wait until she turned 18 because of all he could legally do sexually with her.” She reported the comment to school officials, saying it made her uncomfortable. High school principal Isaac Cottrell says he recall Meckley’s report differently: she said Stewart told her he couldn’t wait until she was 18, and when Cottrell asked her what she believed that meant, she said she believed it was sexual.
Stewart, however, says he was actually berating her for showing poor “work ethic and time management” in weight training class. “How old are you, when do you turn 18?” Stewart says he asked Meckley. “I can’t wait until you turn 18 so I can put you in a headlock and knock some sense into you.”
At the time of the incident, the school year was ending, and Meckley told the school “she did not want to cause problems for her senior year” and only wanted Stewart removed as her National Honor Society sponsor. He was. The school did not discipline Stewart, and the investigation notes “the school has no written documentation of the complaint.”
Meanwhile, district officials have defended their handling of Campbell Sturgill’s allegations, including the decision not to put Stewart on leave during the state police investigation. At the time, administrators say they didn’t have a “formal or informal” complaint from Campbell Sturgill, and the district’s attorneys told them not to take action against Stewart.
“I believe the report and the subsequent actions by the Board speak for themselves,” Hanover-Horton School Board president Gary Schuette said in an email on Friday. “...I am confident the Hanover-Horton community will begin to heal as we move forward in this process.”