Five students who accused a former superintendent/principal of the Orange Center Elementary School District of molesting them inside his office during the 2013-2014 school year have settled their civil lawsuits against the district for $5.4 million.
The accusations against Lance Clement led him to commit suicide in June 2014 inside his Hanford-area home moments before Fresno County sheriff’s officials showed up at his doorstep with a search warrant.
Four victims settled their lawsuits in Fresno County Superior Court on Friday for $3.4 million, said Fresno attorney Jacob Rivas, who represented the four students.
A fifth victim settled her lawsuit with the school district several months ago for $2 million, Rivas said.
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Orange Center Elementary on Cherry Avenue south of Fresno serves about 960 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Many of them are children of migrant farm workers. Graduates typically attend Washington Union High School in Easton.
Clement, who was married and had two children, was superintendent and principal from 2010 to June 6, 2014, when he shot himself.
The settlement was reached just days before Rivas and district officials were scheduled to go to trial.
Superintendent/Principal Terry M. Hirschfield said the $5.4 million settlement will be paid by the school district’s insurance carrier, so it will not affect any student’s education.
On Monday, Orange Center Superintendent/Principal Terry M. Hirschfield declined to discuss details of the settlements, other than to say it was a decision made by the district’s legal team and insurance carrier. Because the settlement will be paid by the insurance company, it will not impact any student’s education, said Hirschfield, who became superintendent/principal in July 2015.
The victims say Clement, 42, touched their private parts and offered them candy and gifts like iPods in exchange for keeping quiet about the abuse. The evidence also showed that Clements threatened the victims, Rivas said Monday.
“He said he would kill them and their families if they told anyone,” Rivas said.
The break in the case came around May 30, 2014, when sheriff’s detectives interviewed an Orange Center janitor who reported seeing Clement with a 10-year-old fifth-grader inside his office after school ended. The janitor told officials he spotted the student quickly leaving Clement’s darkened office on the night of the school’s talent show. The girl later told investigators that Clement molested her and gave her makeup and candy that night.
In addition, the girl told investigators that Clement liked to keep track of her height and weight by measuring her waist with a tape measure and marking her height on the bathroom door in his office, Rivas said.
The other victims gave investigators similar accounts about Clement’s lewd behavior inside his office, Rivas said.
A 9-year-old fourth-grader told investigators she was forced to watch him fondle himself. Clement would then molest her, Rivas said.
A 13-year-old seventh-grader said she also was forced to watch him fondle himself. And she was once accosted in the library, Rivas said.
An eighth-grader was repeatedly called into his office. Clement would shut the door and molest her over her clothing, Rivas said. During these encounters, the girl was forced to hug Clement and sometime watch child pornography on his school computer, Rivas said.
In addition, Clement took the girl to a portable classroom and molested her there, Rivas said. “He would force her to lay on a table and he would kiss her stomach,” Rivas said.
When the girl resisted, Clement threatened her with a box cutter, Rivas said. One time he nicked her with the cutter, the lawyer said.
He said he would kill them and their families if they told anyone.
Fresno attorney Jacob Rivas
Rivas said he sued the school district for negligence because teachers and school staff either failed to report Clement’s lewd behavior to authorities or failed to follow through on their suspicions about him.
Teachers and school staff are mandatory reporters. Rivas said that means “if they see anything reasonably suspicious they have to report it to county Child Protective Services or law enforcement.”
But many times Orange Center teachers and staff ignored Clement’s behavior, Rivas said. “Some were just too scared of him to report it,” he said. “Others just didn’t do it.”
For example, Rivas said, a female janitor in September 2013 noticed photographs of girls in cheerleading outfits taped to the door of the restroom in Clement’s office. “In her deposition, she conceded she didn’t report it,” Rivas said.
There also was evidence that Clement would repeatedly ask his secretaries to call the victims in their classrooms and ask them to go to his office. The secretaries would then direct the girls to go in his office. “Clement would shut the door and be with the victim for more than 30 minutes,” Rivas said. “And the secretaries didn’t think it was wrong or do anything about it.”
The evidence also showed that a female teacher in 2012 called CPS with her suspicions. But Rivas said CPS allegedly told the teacher that since she didn’t have proof of Clement’s lewd behavior it would be wrong to ruin his reputation.
Another teacher called CPS in 2013 after one of the victims tearfully told him that Clement forced her to hug him. The teacher was told to call law enforcement, but the teacher failed to do so, Rivas said.
At the time of the investigation, county social services officials could not provide information about any alleged CPS investigations into Clement’s behavior. Wendy Osikafo, deputy director for the department, said at the time CPS probes are typically limited to cases where a child is abused at home.
Rivas said Clement had a firm grip on teachers and staff because he was the superintendent with the authority to hire or fire. When teachers and janitors gave depositions in the case, Rivas said, all or most of them said they disliked Clement and described him as a bully. Only Clement’s secretaries liked him, Rivas said.
Hirschfield said Monday the settlement ends a horrible chapter in the district’s history. “The district will always do what is best for our students,” she said. “Our mission is to make sure all students are safe.”
Rivas said he hopes the settlement sends a message.
“As a matter of public policy, children should be safe at school and teachers play a key role in making that happen,” Rivas said. “I hope this is a painful reminder that they do have that responsibility.”