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Sentinel High School

Sentinel High School in a 2014 file photo

A Sentinel High School teacher has been placed on administrative leave pending the school’s investigation into allegations he sexually assaulted a student several years ago, according to an email sent to parents Monday morning.

"Per normal procedures, and in the interest of protecting student safety, staff members are immediately placed on leave while the district conducts a full and thorough investigation into the allegations," Sentinel Principal Ryan Rettig wrote.

The Missoulian is not naming the teacher, who as of Monday has not been charged with any crime. The teacher, who has taught business and marketing at Sentinel since 2006, denies the claim and said he only sought to support ambitious students. At the time of the alleged incident he advised the school’s chapter of DECA, a program that focuses students on marketing, finance, hospitality and management, and competitions, as well as national conferences.

Sentinel graduate Dylan Haggart identified himself to the Missoulian as the teacher's accuser in a Sept. 24 interview. He has agreed to the Missoulian’s use of his name in this article.

Haggart, now 21, alleges the teacher provided him alcohol and marijuana at the teacher's home during Haggart's sophomore year. He said they were watching television when the teacher sexually assaulted him. 

"I just pretended to be asleep," Haggart said of the encounter.

"This is absolutely false," the teacher wrote in an emailed response through his attorney John Smith on Monday. "I never provided alcohol or drugs to high school students nor have I ever had sexual contact with Dylan Haggart or any other high school student."

No one who spoke with the Missoulian for this story said they suspected the teacher of misconduct at the time. In fact, most former students who spoke with the Missoulian described him as a great mentor.

One 2006 DECA member who declined to be named in this story said the teacher was one of the greatest influences they had at a young age, and attributed the teacher's guidance to focusing their career path.

Nate Sager, who graduated in 2016, echoed those remarks.

“It was a great program to be involved in, definitely what I took away (from) the most in high school,” said Sager, now a senior marketing student at the University of Montana. “Every experience I had with (the teacher) was a positive one.”

The program, for a long time the largest chapter in the state, regularly saw more than 100 students participating each year.

Haggart, however, described years of special treatment and "grooming" behavior during his time in the DECA program, before and after the alleged assault during Haggart’s sophomore year in early 2015. Haggart said the teacher “doubled down” on his special treatment of him after the alleged incident, perceived favoritism that Haggart said isolated him from his DECA peers.

Haggart came forward to school officials and police last month because he became distressed after learning someone close to him would be entering the DECA program.

"At this point, I just want him away from children," Haggart said.

Interviews with 10 former Sentinel DECA students, whose years in the program range from 2006 until 2017, portray the teacher as a thoughtful and professional mentor to his business and marketing students. But they also define a close student-teacher relationship between the teacher and Haggart that was well known to students and at times one characterized by the students as detrimental to the DECA program.

Haggart had difficulty making friends at Sentinel, so threw himself into DECA in his freshman year. By his sophomore year, Haggart had become a DECA officer, which came along with responsibilities in running the Sparta Mart store at the school. The more involved with DECA he became, the fewer friends he seemed to have, Haggart said.

By the end of his sophomore year, in the months after he alleges the assault took place, Haggart said he began a pattern of self-destructive tendencies at school that made him hard to get along with.

"I always knew and a lot of times I was trying to prove to people that I wasn't gay, like, no one was even questioning it," he said. 

By his junior year at Sentinel, Haggart was state DECA president. He enjoyed the program and took it seriously. But Haggart said he had climbed through the ranks over students who had waited their turn to hold office, he said, and they suspected the teacher was helping.

Sager was a year ahead of Haggart, a senior while Haggart was state DECA president. The DECA president and adviser were supposed to be in close contact, Sager said, but the teacher's partiality toward Haggart seemed excessive. 

“Not to the extent that any of these allegations crossed anyone’s mind,” Sager said. “But there were definitely moments and instances that we all knew Haggart was the favorite."

Sager said he looks back on that conflict as an unnecessary burst of “high school drama.” The perceived favoritism, however, drew a sharp response when Bee Drew resigned as chapter president in fall 2015.

“I have recognized that my anger never truly lie with Dylan, but with what has felt as being abandoned by you for the sake of the future of DECA,” wrote Drew in a letter she shared with the Missoulian.

"Dylan was a very hard working officer who constantly sought out challenges and opportunities," the teacher said in written response to the Missoulian's questions. "He earned his leadership positions by virtue of his dedication and time spent working on behalf of the chapter and the school. I did not perceive this as special treatment of Dylan. Rather, I perceived this as rewarding his initiative and prolific work ethic."

In an interview with the Missoulian, Drew said the teacher had encouraged students not to apply for high-ranking DECA positions so Haggart could fill in.

“Myself and some of the officers felt he had been favoring Dylan over the rest of us and putting his sole attention into him,” she said. "With Dylan, (the teacher) was more protective."

Another student who requested to remain anonymous told the Missoulian they personally drank alcohol at the teacher's house with Haggart while they were in high school.

"Absolutely not," the teacher said. "I have never allowed high school students to drink alcohol in my home."

In the summer before his senior year, after Haggart had served as state DECA president, he wanted out. He filed to transfer to Hellgate High School. That request was denied because he had used his father’s work address in place of a residential address. Nonetheless, the teacher contacted Haggart’s parents to intervene.

At the time, Kevin Haggart thought back on the success his son had at Sentinel and with DECA. Haggart had not told his parents, or anyone, about the alleged abuse.

“As a dad, you view protection of your kids as the highest priority, and here it is, you’re just feeding it to him (the teacher) on a silver platter,” Kevin Haggart said.

Kevin Haggart said the teacher had "inflated" the consequences, like losing potential scholarship opportunities and college acceptance letters, if Haggart were to transfer out of Sentinel.

For his part, the teacher said in a written response, "I have had many conversations over the years with students considering a transfer. If I felt that the student had engagement and a sense of purpose at Sentinel, I encouraged them to stay. I reached out to Dylan’s father indicating the DECA State Director had called me because he wasn’t getting any response from Dylan, who was a State DECA officer at the time. Sentinel’s principal Ted Fuller scheduled our meeting with Dylan and his family. Although Dylan’s transfer request had already been denied, we were trying to reassure him that Sentinel valued him, and that he was well positioned for college and scholarship opportunities due to his efforts while at Sentinel. Dylan later indicated he was glad to be at Sentinel and he resumed his customary hard work."

Haggart also had friends at Hellgate High, including Blaine Redman, who thought Haggart wanted to transfer so that he would be with friends. Redman told the Missoulian last week he remembers Haggart saying a teacher had changed his mind about wanting to transfer.

“He was kind of sad, but at the same time (Haggart) felt like he was doing the right thing,” Redman said.

Haggart estimated he had been to the teacher’s home roughly 10 times over the course of high school. Sometimes there was alcohol and marijuana, Haggart alleged. Sometimes, Haggart said, the teacher would make sexually suggestive comments when they were alone.

The teacher assaulted Haggart once, Haggart told the Missoulian. It was about February in 2015, and Haggart remembers they were watching the new season of “House of Cards” on Netflix at the teacher's house. He remembers feeling uneasy about the teacher’s offers of a fruity alcoholic beverage and marijuana.

“I didn’t want to be put in a situation where I felt the need to stay there,” he said.

Haggart declined to detail the alleged assault, but described the moments around it. He said he pretended to be asleep on the couch when the teacher assaulted him, and remembers hearing his belt click when the teacher secured it again.

“I just laid there for a while. He put my pants back together and I started acting like I woke up,” Haggart said. He went home shortly after. 

Haggart said he confronted the teacher about the incident a few days later, but the teacher denied it and Haggart began to question if it ever happened at all. The first time Haggart ever spoke of it again was two years later, during the winter of 2016-2017.

“Dylan and I were just talking in my car and he was upset,” said Brenna Swinger, a close friend of Haggart’s at the time. “He mentioned that he was sexually assaulted by a male in his life that he trusted. He didn’t want to talk any further about it; he said I was the only person that knew.

“I did believe him,” she added. “Dylan and I have had kind of a rocky relationship. This did seem like a situation like he was being pretty vulnerable and honest.”

In recent weeks, Haggart has been calling former DECA members to raise the alarm, and to seek others who may have been abused. He's found none.

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson declined to comment further on the investigation when reached by phone Monday. In the email sent out to parents of Sentinel students Monday morning, Principal Rettig wrote the school will also cooperate with any law enforcement agencies investigating the allegations. 

"Student safety is of critical importance to our District," Rettig wrote. "As such, all reports are thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken. If you have any concerns or questions about your students, please contact me directly."

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