Clovis second-grade teacher Neng Yang appeared in shackles in Fresno County Superior Court on Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to 45 counts of child molestation involving one student. Later in the day, school officials started the process to fire him.
Yang, 43, said nothing during the brief hearing in front of Judge Jeff Bird. Yang looked toward the audience but saw no familiar faces.
Yang entered his plea through his lawyer, Vang Heu, of the Public Defender's Office. After Yang's arraignment, a bailiff escorted him back to Fresno County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of $4.5 million bail. His next hearing in Superior Court is Feb. 8.
Yang wanted to hire attorney Brian Andritch to represent him, but Andritch said Wednesday that Yang's family decided not to retain him.
He didn't say why, but alluded to the high cost to mount a defense to 45 counts.
Defense attorney Glenn LoStracco, who is not associated with the case, said if Yang is convicted, he faces 15 years to life in prison for each felony count.
"It's an ugly case because it would be difficult to defend," said LoStracco, a former Fresno County prosecutor. "If the evidence is what they say it is, probation is off the table and he'll never get out of prison."
Yang also faces one federal felony count of producing child pornography. He is scheduled to be in Fresno's U.S. District Court today.
Fresno defense attorney Charles Magill said it is not unusual for a defendant to face charges in both state and federal court for the same crime. "The feds carry a bigger hammer," Magill said, referring to the pornography charge.
In federal court, Yang could be charged for each pornographic image that investigators uncover, Magill said.
Meanwhile, Clovis Unified School District trustees voted at a special closed-door meeting Wednesday to approve grounds for dismissal of an unnamed credentialed employee and to suspend the employee without pay.
Board president Jim Van Volkinburg said the action was being taken based on information in a criminal complaint.
District officials did not name Yang during the meeting, citing personnel rules.
But district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said Yang's status was the same as the employee whose dismissal is being sought.
Clovis Unified hired Yang as an instructional aide in 1993. He was hired to teach at Fancher Creek Elementary in 1997 and transferred to Freedom Elementary in 2007, district officials said.
The investigation of Yang began last Thursday when the parent of a 7-year-old girl called Clovis police to report that her daughter's second-grade teacher had acted inappropriately with the girl.
Following Yang's arrest on Friday, he was placed on paid leave by the district.
Avants said only one certificated employee is on compulsory unpaid leave.
On Wednesday, trustees went into closed session at 12:30 p.m. and returned about 45 minutes later with their decision.
After announcing the action, a somber Van Volkinburg said he appreciated the efforts of the district's staff and community to stay focused on the students.
He added that the district has done its best to uncover the truth and make it public.
"It is never easy to be the bearer of bad news, but people always appreciate hearing the truth," Van Volkinburg said. "Only with the truth can we begin to heal."
Yang's wife, Kia Yang, principal at Miramonte Elementary in Clovis Unified, has requested time off, Avants said.
She continues to get paid by the district and Avants said she is not a person of interest in the criminal case against her husband.