Thomas Steuart was charged with five counts of sexual abuse involving a child under 12 in 2018 when he was a choir teacher at Lexington's Winburn Middle School, and ultimately convicted of reduced charges of harassment and assault in 2021.
Though he was fired from Fayette County Public Schools in 2020, Steuart still had a license to teach in Kentucky as of mid-September this year, state records show. Nearly four years after Steuart was charged, no final action had been taken on his state license. Technically, he could still teach at another school.
The case illustrates, and a review of Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board records show, that it can take months or sometimes years after an allegation before a teacher's license is either voluntarily surrendered, revoked or suspended.
Kentucky Department of Education General Counsel Todd Allen said the Kentucky Department of Education and the Education Professional Standards Board cannot release information on pending matters, so it is not clear whether department officials are limiting Steuart's ability to teach while they investigate.
A key factor that can delay final disciplinary action is the resolution of a criminal case, which is what happened in Steuart's case.
On Nov. 16, 2021, within 15 days of Steuart's guilty plea being entered into court records, an attorney with the Kentucky Department of Education wrote to Fayette Circuit Court asking for a copy of the entire court file.
Steuart entered an Alford Plea in September 2021, according to an order from Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas L. Travis. No victim impact statements were submitted to the court. An Alford plea means the defendant pleads guilty but maintains their innocence and agrees that prosecutors have enough evidence that a jury could find them guilty in a trial.
The EPSB typically holds cases in abeyance - a pending status - when there are underlying pending criminal matters, as long as the educator is not in the classroom. In instances where the educator has not been removed from the classroom, EPSB may take action pursuant to state law prior to a criminal conviction, Allen said.
Steuart's case was also pending during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed the resolution of his and many other criminal cases.
The Lexington Herald-Leader obtained 194 cases of teachers who voluntarily surrendered or had their license revoked or suspended from 2016 to 2021. Of those, 118 - 61% - lost their license due to sexual misconduct.
Steuart and his attorneys Steve Wides and Rawl Kazee of Lexington did not comment to the Herald-Leader about Steuart's case, but said in a motion to the judge that the allegations were false.
Steuart in August 2018 was charged in a complaint by Lexington police with five counts of sexual abuse, four of them involving a child under 12, according to online Fayette Circuit Court records.
The charges occurred after a male child under 16 alleged that Steuart had "subjected him to sexual contact," the complaint said. The alleged victim and other male juveniles would spend time at Steuart's residence to swim and watch movies, according to the child.
A second child, this one under 12 years old, said in an interview with Children's Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass staff that he had also been touched sexually by Steuart at Steuart's house after they returned from going out to eat, according to the complaint.
It's unclear from court records how Steuart met the alleged victims or if he had oversight of them in a professional capacity.
The five counts of sexual abuse were downgraded to:
Count 1 was amended to harassment, no physical contact. Included a $100 fine.
Count 2 was amended to harassment, no physical contact. Included a $100 fine.
Count 3 was reduced to harassment, physical contact, no injury.
Count 4 was amended to fourth-degree assault.
Count 5 was dismissed.
He received a six-month jail sentence but was initially placed on probation for two years.
In October 2021, Travis gave Steuart credit for time served because of the amount of time he had previously been in jail and did not require him to face any additional time detained. He ultimately did not have to serve probation, court documents show.
Fayette Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn told the Herald-Leader that the case highlights the challenges in prosecuting child sexual abuse cases.
"There is an allegation that something happened to the child, and frequently, the child is stigmatized by what happened," she said. "Sometimes during the prosecution, the child victim and the family stop talking with the police, the prosecutor, the judge for their own reasons, and ultimately, they do not want to go forward with the case."
Red Corn said there are alternatives to criminal court to address claims of child sexual abuse. One is family court, and another is in the administrative hearing process regarding teaching licenses, she said.
The evidence required to be successful in those forums, as well as the type of evidence that is admitted, is less stringent than a criminal trial, said Red Corn.
"The need for other forums with different standards is illustrated by comments I have heard from trial jurors over the last 30 plus years - 'we thought the defendant did it, but there just wasn't enough evidence,'" she said.
Steuart's lawyers say allegations 'false'
When contacted by the Herald-Leader in late August, Fayette County school officials declined to comment on Steuart's case.
Steuart remained out on bond for several years without violating any of the terms of his bond, his attorney said in court documents. Much of this time was served on home incarceration, said the motion from his attorney.
"As a consequence of this case, every facet of Mr. Steuart's life has been dismantled, destroyed, or changed forever," his attorney said in the motion filed.
He lost his career based solely on the original allegations, the motion said. Steuart had a master's degree in Music Education from Florida State University with an emphasis in Choral Conducting. He was hired by Fayette County Schools in 2009, the Herald-Leader has reported.
"The false allegations that spawned this case have also caused permanent and irreparable damage to his reputation," the motion said.
Prior to the case, the motion said, Steuart was a beloved teacher and friend to many. He was respected by his colleagues, and sought after by other schools for his awards and commendations. He was proud of the direction his career was heading and of the difference he was making in people's lives.
"However, since the allegations garnered widespread media attention, he has been fired, shunned, and viewed a pariah. There is almost nothing more humiliating than being viewed as a pedophile who betrayed the trust of an entire community and preyed upon children he was entrusted to protect. That is what Mr. Steuart, despite any result in this case, will live with for the rest of his life," his lawyers wrote in court documents.
He continues to hold out hope that one day he can recover "from all of this trauma and move forward in a positive direction," the motion said.
People sent 81 letters of support to Travis, the Fayette judge, detailing "the anguish and heartache that (Steuart) has suffered due to these allegations."
"Additionally, the letters serve as a microcosm of the far-reaching negative effects that the false allegations of this case will continue to have on thousands of people who love Tom, believe in Tom, and will be deprived of the brilliance of Tom in the future. It is nothing short of ... tragic," the motion said.