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Parents confront school board over handling of sexual assault allegations against coach

Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

“Angela, thanks for coming out!” one woman shouted at the end of a tense, emotional Hanover-Horton School Board meeting Monday night. 

The fifty or so parents in attendance broke into applause for Angela Sturgill, who last month publicly accusedteacher and football coach Johnnie Stewart of initiating a sexual relationship with her some 20 years ago. At the time, she says, she was his 16-year-old student.

In the month since, the small district just south of Jackson has been rocked by a series of escalating controversies involving Stewart, including additional reports of sexual misconduct. Stewart maintains his innocence, and the Jackson County prosecutor declined to charge him following a Michigan State Police investigation into Sturgill’s allegations.

But community anger over the school’s handling of the case has been mounting, and seemed to peak Monday night. The meeting opened with board president Gary Schuette asking for “decorum.” No yelling, Schuette instructed the crowd, and no personal attacks.

“I just find it really disturbing, and I think you have a duty now to acknowledge the reality of predatory behavior in this school,” said parent Margaret Holmes. “Those allegations from Angela were brought to [superintendent John] Denney. He did his digging and research, he knew about the2015 incident,” Holmes said, referring to the year another 16-year-old student told the school Stewart had made a sexual comment to her. That complaint wasn’t included in Stewart’s personnel file.

“Things are getting buried,” Holmes told the board. “Why? Why wasn’t that documented?”

In a press release sent over the weekend, school board president Gary Schuette said they’d kept Stewart on the job even as the Michigan State Police investigated Sturgill’s allegations, on the advice of the district’s attorneys.

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
Dozens of parents and residents came out to express anger and frustration with the district's handling of sexual misconduct allegations

But parents at the meeting felt that reasoning was itself a cause for concern.  

“You don’t even care,” another resident, Emma Cossel, told Schuette and the board. “I don’t care what your attorney advises, you are obligated to do the right thing!”

Resident Becky Hill said for years, she’d heard rumors about Stewart’s behavior, but it just was "static" until Sturgill's allegations were made public last month.

“He makes girls trust him," Hill said. "He tests them to see how far he can go. He makes inappropriate comments to our boys about the girls...I can’t stand by and not try to stop his behavior any longer.”

A community in crisis

Hanover-Horton High School is less than 20 miles southwest of Jackson, reached through a main road that cuts past Shorty’s bar and grill, the Congregational church, and a restored marshland reserve, all interspersed between acres of cornfields. It’s the kind of small town where you might not know someone, but you know their cousin who played volleyball with your daughter. And when the school board thanked one departing employee for her service, she reassured a board member they'd at least still be neighbors.

“You just keep your cows and your horse in your pen!” she laughed. 

“We don’t have cows anymore, and they just came to say ‘Hi,’” the board member shot back.

But board members were grave when they turned to the concerns raised by parents Monday evening.

“We are learning as fast as we can, and we don’t want any children harmed in any nature,” board member Chris Blackledge said. “I do have the two kids in school, and we need to make some tough decisions in the future. We need to move on as a school district and do what’s right.”

“I’m asking questions at home [of my own kids,]” board member Joseph Childs told the room. “I want them to open up to me. I want you all to understand that we take it very seriously. We’re going to address it best we can. It may seem like we’re not moving as fast as you may want us to…just know that it’s in here,” he said, motioning to his heart. “I feel it. I feel it.”

Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio
School board president Gary Schuette defended the district's decisions regarding Stewart

Board president Gary Schuette told parents he knew they were frustrated with the district’s response.

“In the world that we live in, we do go to our attorneys for guidance,” he said. “We’re foolish not to follow their legal advice. So that’s what we did in that circumstance. I know that doesn’t set well with you, and I understand. I hope that at some point you will understand where it is where we come from when we did that.”

For Angela Sturgill, it’s been a month of ups and downs. After the public comment period wrapped, she chatted with several parents in the parking lot outside as the sun started to set. She appreciated hearing their support, she told them.

“To have people supporting you finally, and to finally be able to tell your story, I wish I would have been able to come out sooner,” she said. “But I can’t change that. [It’s] amazing. You definitely don’t expect that. In the beginning, you’re scared to death.”

Sturgill says when she went public with her allegations last month, she hoped others might come forward to corroborate her story. Now she feels grateful to them, she says –but not everyone in town has been supportive.  

“My name has been drug through the mud. My husband’s name has been drug through the mud. Who wants to go through that? Nobody. But absolutely, I was praying that other victims would come forward. And if there are other victims out there, hopefully they will feel strong enough to come forward as well,” Sturgill said.

The school district has hired its own investigator, Diane Fenby, to look into the complaints against Stewart. (Superintendent John Denney is asking anyone with information to contact Fenby at gfbservicesllc@gmail.com.) That investigation could wrap as early as next week, the board’s attorney said Monday. Asked what outcome she’s hoping for, Sturgill says, “Just justice, getting him out of the picture, not being in our community, not working for this school, so that we can feel like our children are safe, not just for me, but for every parent in this community.” 

This story was last updated July 23, 2019. A correction was made to the name of Shorty's Grill in Horton.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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