May 28, 1995 in Nation/World

Counselor Keeps Job Amid Sex Scandal Teaching License Is On The Line, But He Still Has Close Contact With Students

Susan Drumheller And Winda Benedetti S Staff writer
 

Despite growing allegations that high school counselor Steve Milionis had sexual relations with students in the Wallace and Grangeville school districts, he still is working one-on-one with students.

If the claims in a lawsuit against Milionis are proven, he almost certainly would lose his teaching certificate and his job at Coeur d’Alene High School, school officials say.

Yet neither state nor local school officials are actively investigating the charges. Instead, they are waiting for the lawsuit to be resolved.

That could take months or years.

In the meantime, Milionis, 39, continues his close working relationship with students as a guidance counselor.

He denies any wrongdoing.

“All they are right now are allegations,” Milionis said when contacted at school, where students popped into his office for counseling before the end of the school year. Beyond that he would not comment.

Dody Stewart filed suit against Milionis and the Wallace School District in August 1994, claiming emotional suffering caused by what a psychologist called “professional incest,” in the court file.

She recently added Grangeville School District to the Kootenai County District Court suit. Stewart claims school officials knew that Milionis had sexual relations with an unidentified student there but allowed him to move to other districts.

Recently filed court documents and dozens of interviews appear to support the claims against the school counselor.

Coeur d’Alene school officials refused comment on whether new materials in the court file will have any bearing on Milionis’ job.

Jim Shackelford, executive director of the Idaho Education Association, believes Idaho law adequately protects students from teachers, but leaves teachers vulnerable to frivolous accusations.

“There are a growing number of teachers who have faced false allegations and as a result … the teacher’s career is, at a minimum, smudged if not ruined, because of the publicity.”

Regardless of whether the claims against Milionis are true, some educators say the practice of passing abusive teachers off to unwitting school districts - what they call “passing the trash” - is a continuing problem in Idaho.

Love letters to 14-year-old

Stewart was 14 years old when Milionis began sending love letters to her, according to her court statement

“I love you for filling me with passion’s desire … for making me realize my full potential as a person when I return your love the way God meant I should,” reads one letter supposedly from Milionis to Stewart found in the court file.

Stewart, now 23, lives in Absarokee, Mont., where she’s getting counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to her attorney.

Although Stewart could not be reached for an interview, her court affidavit gives the following detailed account of a clandestine affair carried out in hotel rooms and back seats for years:

Stewart was a ninth-grader at Silver Hills Middle School when she met Milionis, the school’s new special-education instructor. The two became friends, she said, meeting daily in his office, joking and betting on football games.

“I thought our daily contact was nothing more than platonic,” she said in her affidavit. “I trusted and looked up to Mr. Milionis as a teacher, a coach, and an adult.”

But Stewart said their relationship changed in October or November of 1985. She claimed Milionis gave her a ride home one night, kissing her before he dropped her off.

Milionis asked several times to have sex with Stewart, but at first she refused, saying she was afraid.

In November 1985, Milionis drove her to a secluded road. They parked and had sex in his car, according to the affidavit. Stewart said they had sex on a weekly basis through the rest of the school year.

The court file contains photographs of the two together and copies of numerous notes and letters she claimed Milionis sent her.

Milionis admitted he wrote some letters and denies writing others, according to court documents.

Among the ones he admits writing: “Dody … I need your embrace the loving arms that hold me still and let the love flow freely and silently between us. I need you so much.”

The date in the corner of the card reads Feb. 14, 1987. Stewart would have been 15.

Milionis denied writing the incriminating date. His attorney, Thomas Mitchell, said somebody altered some of the letters, which actually were sent after August 1989, when Stewart would have been 18.

Stewart said that while their sexual relations continued throughout her high school years, rumors of their relationship spread among the students and teachers when she was a sophomore.

Former Wallace teacher Barbara McGregor, who was mentioned in court documents, said during an interview that most staff members were “very assured something was going on.”

In a court affidavit from Frank Bertino, the Wallace School superintendent admitted there was a rumor that Milionis was dating a female student. Bertino said he was told by Milionis’ supervisors that nothing could be substantiated.

Stewart said school administrators never questioned her. Karla Merrill was the only teacher who asked about the rumors, Stewart said.

Merrill, now a teacher in Post Falls, vaguely recalled the conversation. “I was just concerned for a particular athlete who played for me,” said Merrill, Wallace’s girls basketball coach at the time.

Stewart also claimed she contracted an unspecified sexually transmitted disease during her sophomore year. She said she had sex only with Milionis.

Although he denied responsibility, she said he paid to send her to a Coeur d’Alene doctor.

Milionis broke off the relationship in 1993, Stewart said.

Investigation stalled

Neither the Coeur d’Alene School District nor the state’s Professional Standards Commission is now investigating Stewart’s claims.

The commission is responsible for investigating alleged teacher misconduct on behalf of the state Board of Education.

When Coeur d’Alene school officials first learned of Stewart’s lawsuit last fall, they suspended Milionis for a week as they investigated whether any misconduct occurred since he was hired in 1990.

They found no evidence of wrongdoing, and in fact were told by other staff members that Milionis is popular with students. Students were not questioned.

“We did our investigation, and we feel comfortable with his performance while he’s been with the district,” said Superintendent Doug Cresswell.

Even though Milionis could lose his job based on Stewart’s claims, Coeur d’Alene schools attorney Charles Dodson said any action is doubtful before the lawsuit is resolved.

Although the alleged misconduct would be a clear violation of the teacher’s code of conduct, the state has not opened a file on Milionis.

Jim Smith, state Professional Standards Commission investigator, said that for now, he is leaving the matter to the Coeur d’Alene School District and to the courts.

Lack of official action puzzles some.

Former teacher McGregor believes Stewart’s charges and said Milionis should “absolutely not” be working with students one-on-one. “He’s skating through. He’s just skating,” she said.

Even Shackelford of the state teacher’s union said certain allegations justify a teacher’s suspension.

Although he would not comment on this particular case, he said that “If the allegation is such that there would be potential danger to the student, any student, then the district should act.”

Passing the trash

If Stewart’s account is true, it follows a pattern exposed in a 1988 series of stories by The Spokesman-Review that examined more than 100 cases of alleged sexual contact between teachers and students during the 1980s in North Idaho and Washington.

Since then, Idaho strengthened a law designed to eliminate the problem and keep school districts from passing along abusive teachers.

The 1992 law requires school districts to report to the state when a teacher is fired or resigns for any reason that could get his or her teaching certificate revoked or suspended.

This law was not in place as Milionis moved from the Grangeville School District to Moscow and Wallace, and finally to Coeur d’Alene.

Another law requires school officials to report allegations of child abuse to the state Department of Health and Welfare.

“Years ago it was a common practice that when you wanted to get rid of someone you’d write a good recommendation and send them down the road with a sigh of relief,” Dodson said.

According to a tort claim filed against the Grangeville School District, Stewart’s attorneys contend Milionis had sexual relations with a student while he was employed there as a special education teacher from 1980 to 1983.

The lawsuit alleges that Grangeville school officials knew about the misconduct, but concealed it. Instead, they made an agreement with Milionis, not to fire him but allow him to resign and go to work elsewhere.

“We really do deny the allegations,” said Al Arnzen, superintendent for the Grangeville School District.

Arnzen refused to comment on the specifics of the case. However, he added, “I can guarantee you, from my point of view, if I had absolute proof that someone was doing something illegal I certainly would not pass that teacher on to someone else. Never.”

Smith, the professional standards investigator, said “passing the trash” still is a problem because school district attorneys find ways around the laws.

“We have a couple of situations within the state right now where there is a possibility that a district wrote a recommendation … knowing full well there were concerns,” Smith said.

Coeur d’Alene school officials did not learn of the allegations against Milionis until the lawsuit was filed last fall, said John Brumley, the principal who hired him.

“The written recommendations and information exchanged was very positive and actually remains positive,” he said.

Was deadline missed?

Attorneys for Milionis and the Wallace School District have filed to have the case dismissed.

They say Stewart waited too long to file suit. She had to file within 180 days of her 18th birthday but instead waited several years, they argue.

Stewart’s attorneys say she couldn’t sue earlier because her psychological disorder caused her to be unaware that she had been harmed.

Wallace School attorneys also argue the district is not responsible for what happened.

“No school district hires a teacher to have a relationship with a student,” said Mike Ramsden, district attorney. “If this happened, then we’re saying that’s really beyond the scope of what we asked the teacher to do. We asked him to teach students.”

Besides, he added, “She herself is at fault for her own conduct.”

ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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