A rural Fresno County elementary school principal suspected of having sexual activity with a student killed himself Friday morning at his home after deputies came there to search it, Fresno County sheriff's officials said.
Orange Center Elementary principal Lance Clement, 42, shot himself at his Hanford-area home, said Fresno County sheriff's Lt. John Golden. Sheriff's detectives showed up about 7:30 a.m. to serve him with a search warrant and heard the shot as they approached Clement's home, but were unable to save him, Golden said.
The home is on 14th Avenue near Flint Avenue, northwest of Hanford in Kings County. Clement, who also was Orange Center's superintendent, is from the area. He previously was principal at Parkview Middle School in Armona, the unincorporated community between Hanford and Lemoore.
Orange Center is on Cherry Avenue just north of Central Avenue, less than a mile south of Fresno city limits. It's an independent, one-school district serving about 350 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Most are from rural homes.
The case is being investigated as a suicide by the Kings County coroner, who will determine the cause of death, said Kings County Assistant Sheriff Dave Putnam.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims announced the investigation of Clement just hours after he died.
Officials say Clement was initially investigated after a school employee last week reported seeing him with a young female student in his office with the lights off after school had ended.
Mims said the employee called the sheriff's office the next day.
"An employee trusted his gut," she said.
Investigators spoke with both Clement and the girl and decided no crime occurred, but "it raised some red flags," Mims said.
Fresno County sheriff's sex crime detectives launched a full investigation on Tuesday. Detectives interviewed about 20 more girls, mostly fifth graders, who reportedly had gone to his office. The investigation revealed Clement frequently called young students into his office and had been involved in inappropriate gift-giving.
In one case, allegations against Clement "may have risen to a sexual battery, or possibly lewd and lascivious acts involving someone under 14," Mims said.
"Definitely, unethical behavior took place," she said.
Detectives went to inspect his computer at the school and found "the hard drive was missing," Mims said. "That's an additional red flag."
That discovery prompted officials to ask a judge for approval to search Clement's home.
School trustees took his keys and he was placed on leave, Mims said.
Detectives found computers at his home and took them, she said.
Mims said the investigation will continue because "parents have a right to know" if their child was a victim. The investigation could also establish if a child would need counseling, she said.
And Kings County detectives are "prepared to investigate any alleged crimes" involving Clement, Putnam said.
Camilla Sutherland, a school improvement coordinator with the Fresno County Office of Education who is acting administrator at Orange Center, said Clement was placed on administrative leave with pay Wednesday, which was also the last day of school.
She said no students were on campus when the news of his death broke.
"We've had a couple of staff members, a couple of parents have come in just to talk," she said. "It is a sad day, but we will have counseling services with our crisis intervention team, they will be here on Monday and as long as we need them."
Sutherland said the school board will vote to name an interim principal/superintendent next week.
Fresno County Schools Superintendent Jim Yovino was surprised by Friday's events and said his office is offering any assistance it can. He said he went out to Orange Center on Friday and plans to send county education office staff and counselors out again on Monday.
"All of it is troubling," he said. "This is really unfortunate for everyone."
Yovino said Clement started working as Orange Center's principal and superintendent four years ago.
Gene Balthrop, who retired from the Orange Center board in January, said he was "in complete shock" to learn of the alleged inappropriate actions by Clement, and of his death.
Balthrop, 72, said he was on the board when Clement was hired. He didn't vote for Clement, only because he thought he would not remain at the district for long.
Clement was responsible for bringing a charter school to the district that helped financially, Balthrop said. "And he was instrumental with the solar installation for the school district that saved a lot of money."
Balthrop said that during his time as a trustee, "there was not one complaint about his behavior or anything" from students, parents or staff.
Gus Amos, a board member of Armona School District, said Clement was employed as principal of Parkview Middle School in Armona for three years.
"He was very well-liked," Amos said. "He dazzled us with his knowledge, with his demeanor. He was great with kids. I don't think anyone didn't like Lance."
Clement wanted to move up in administration, so he went to Orange Center to be superintendent and principal, Amos said.
Early in Clement's career, he was a part-time bus driver and janitor at Pioneer School in Armona, and a basketball coach, Amos said. He finished his education and got a teaching job in another school district, then came to Armona, he said.
Clement would "high five" students, Amos said. "I bet he did that 1,000 times a day."