High school football coach settles with school following sexual assault investigation

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 8:08 am


A high school football coach and teacher has agreed to resign and will receive $20,000 as part of a settlement with the Hanover-Horton school district. That’s after a district investigation found it “more likely than not” Coach Johnnie Stewart engaged in a sexual relationship with a former student some 20 years ago, beginning when the student was 16 years old.


“While I am reluctant to accept this, because I desperately want to clear my name from the false and ugly accusations that have been made about me, I do believe that this resolution is in the best interests of my family, and will hopefully bring some finality which will allow the Hanover-Horton community to move on,” Stewart says in a statement released through his attorney on Wednesday. 

That same school investigation also found evidence Stewart “furnished alcohol to students at parties,” created a “sexually charged and hostile learning environment,” propositioned another student and “threatened a student with physical harm because the student had told Mr. Stewart to leave high school girls alone.” 

“I don’t think Johnnie Stewart ever had the best interest of his students or his district as he claims in his statement,” says Angela Sturgill, the woman who accused Stewart of grooming and coercing her into a sexual relationship when she was his teacher’s aide, sometime around 1998 or 1999. “If this were the case, the investigator wouldn’t have found it to be a hostile environment for his students, or the district wouldn’t have been found in direct violation of Title IX standards due to his conduct.

“We are relieved this is over, but are saddened with the result. I don’t think there is ever real closure when your abuser walks away free and is still allowed to teach in other districts, putting other students at risk.”

Parents and residents have repeatedly expressed their anger with the district's handling of the allegations against Stewart. First, the school knew the Michigan State Police was investigating Stewart for alleged sexual misconduct for months last school year, but allowed him to continue working. Then, the district denied having received earlier complaints about Stewart, until other allegations emerged, including from one former student who said she'd reported Stewart to the school in 2015. 

Hanover-Horton Superintendent John Denney announced the settlement in a letter to families, one month after the school board voted unanimously to pursue tenure termination charges against Stewart. 

“Here are the main details of the agreement:  

  • Mr. Stewart has resigned from Hanover-Horton School District  

  • Mr. Stewart will not return to our district in any capacity.  

  • Mr. Stewart’s pay stopped when he signed the agreement on 9/16/19.  

  • Mr. Stewart will be paid a lump sum of $20,000 as part of the settlement. 

  •  Any reference checks will only state he worked for Hanover-Horton, his salary and his roles. Documentation from this process will be part of his file.  

  • Current and former students will not be required to testify.  

  • This agreement brings closure to our victims and community sooner!” 

Denney says the settlement “was in the best interest” of the school, because Stewart would have been entitled to a salary for as long as the tenure negotiations continued.  

“We estimated that at a minimum, he would have been entitled to more than $20,000 in compensation as this process played out,” Denney said in the letter. “While the District continues to pay the employee and a substitute teacher; we are also paying a legal team to prepare for the hearing and file the necessary responses as the case works its way through the system.

“Finding a mutually agreed-upon resolution was the only way to guarantee Mr. Stewart did not return to Hanover-Horton. Had we gone through the tenure process and won, Mr. Stewart would still have maintained his teaching license and his pension.”

Attorney Kevin Roragin represents Stewart. Asked if his client plans to pursue other teaching or coaching jobs, Roragin said he doesn’t know. In May, the Jackson County prosecutor declined to charge Stewart for criminal sexual conduct, citing an expired statute of limitations and a lack of sufficient evidence.

 
Copyright 2019 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.