Two Orange Center students file claims against district, deceased principal's estate

The Fresno BeeJuly 2, 2014 

Lance Clement

The former principal of Orange Center Elementary who killed himself last month sexually molested at least two young female students in his office on multiple occasions, according to claims lodged this week against the school district and the principal's estate.

The alleged victims say Lance Clement, 42, touched them in inappropriate places and offered them candy and expensive gifts like iPods in exchange for keeping quiet about the abuse.

Attorneys for the claimants say staff, teachers and other administrators ignored serious warning signs, such as that Clement frequently would pull female students out of class and keep them in his office for extended periods with the door closed.

One of the claims alleges the former principal called a 10-year-old girl into his office at least 15 times.

He'd tell office staff that he was working with the youngster on school work, the claim says. Then he'd shower her with costly presents, including an iPod, and touch her in inappropriate places that included her groin and buttocks, the claim alleges.

Sometimes he'd tell her "I love you" and give her a hug before sending her back to class.

The claims being made are precursors to formal lawsuits, which would be heard as civil cases. Fresno County sheriff's detectives continue to investigate for any criminal violations.

RELATED: Claims against Orange Center, Clements' estate, and affidavit (warning, graphic sexual material)

Orange Center's temporary principal, Camilla Sutherland, said the district's legal team is reviewing the claim, plus a separate claim filed by another student.

The other claimant, a 13-year-old girl, alleges the molestation escalated to sexual assault over time. Clement would make inappropriate comments about her appearance and ask whether she watched pornography. On three occasions, Clement allegedly sexually assaulted her. He also slapped her and then threatened he would do things to her parents and younger brother if she told anyone about their meetings.

Her attorney, Ronald Martinez, said Wednesday the girl is still "extremely reluctant" and embarrassed to talk about the alleged assaults and feels partly responsible for Clement's suicide.

"She gets interviewed by the sheriff's department and then he committed suicide," Martinez said, adding that she feels there's a correlation between the events. "It has definitely exaggerated the harm to her."

Both accusers are now undergoing psychological counseling, their attorneys say.

The allegations come less than a month after Clement reportedly shot himself when Fresno County sheriff's officials showed up to his Hanford-area home with a search warrant. Reports from at least three students, including the claimants, helped uncover Clement's alleged behavior, the affidavit requesting a warrant shows.

Deputies were first tipped off around May 30, the document says, when they interviewed an Orange Center janitor who reported seeing Clement with the 10-year-old accuser in his office after school ended.

The janitor told officials he spotted the student quickly leaving Clement's dark office on the night of the school's talent show. The girl, also interviewed by investigators, said Clement gave her makeup and candy that night.

She also told officials that Clement previously smacked her on the buttocks and warned her against gaining weight. When officials talked with the girl's mother, who also works at Orange Center, she was aware of most of what her daughter said Clement had done to her. The mother never reported the allegations out of fear she would be retaliated against if her daughter's statements were false, she told officials.

Jacob Rivas, the 10-year-old claimant's attorney, said the student's mother also worried a district investigation would be half-hearted, since she felt Clement's actions were well-known, "yet nobody did anything about it." According to the claim, staff reported Clement to authorities several times. Child Protective Services conducted two investigations, it says. The district should be held liable since they continued Clement's employment even though they knew about the allegations, Rivas said.

"There had been a lot of discussion and conversation out there in that area amongst students and staff alike that Mr. Clements was engaging in this type of behavior with students," he said. "The school district itself did nothing."

Fresno County Social Services officials could not provide information about the alleged CPS investigations. Wendy Osikafo, deputy director for the department, said CPS probes are typically limited to cases where a child is abused at home.

A sheriff's affidavit says another student was a victim of similarly inappropriate behavior.

In that document, a 12-year-old told officials Clement offered to fix her iPod if she gave him something in return. He told her to "use her imagination because she was smart," but she never followed up because he made her feel uncomfortable. She and the 13-year-old told investigators that Clement was "a pervert."

Clement was placed on administrative leave on June 4, just a day after detectives spoke with the third child and two days before he killed himself.

In the early hours of June 6, Fresno County sheriff's detectives showed up at his house intending to track down his school computer hard drive, which was missing when detectives searched his office the day before. They'd already collected his school-issued laptop, iPad and iPhone.

Kings County sheriff's officials, who are overseeing Clement's death investigation, said the former principal's wife was in the shower when she heard the gunshot. All evidence points to a suicide, although officials are still waiting on the coroner's official report, Sgt. Pete Thompson said.

Fresno County sheriff's investigators are conducting a separate probe into Clement's alleged sexual molestation and assaults. Sgt. Jeff Kertson said detectives have talked with "numerous students" since Clement's death.

"Even though he is deceased, it's still an open investigation," said Kertson. "We still want to find the answers we're looking for and put the pieces of the puzzle back together."

All the details may never come into full focus because of Clement's suicide, said Rivas.

Clement is "not here to cross-examine, and second, he won't be able to face any sort of justice," Rivas said. "It was the easy way out."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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