A Clovis Unified school panel Thursday night recommended expulsion for a Buchanan High School wrestler accused of sexual battery against a teammate.
The decision came after the first public airing of a case that has provoked a furious community debate over when an aggressive move in sports becomes a crime. Preston Hill also faces a criminal trial on the sexual battery charge. The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 27 in Fresno County Superior Court.
A top prosecutor -- Chief Deputy District Attorney Rudy Carrillo -- attended the hearing and took notes.
Nobody disputes that Hill, a senior, performed a "butt-drag" maneuver on a freshman teammate during a July practice at Buchanan. But on Thursday, his coach and several teammates insisted that the 17-year-old would never intentionally hurt another wrestler. The parents of the alleged victim, meanwhile, were just as adamant that their son had been bullied by Hill and that he was fearful of retaliation at school.
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Hill was charged with sexual battery after Clovis police reported that he allegedly rammed two fingers into a teammate's anus.
Though Hill denied the allegation, the Clovis Unified School District suspended him, pending the outcome of an expulsion hearing.
The three-member panel included retired Clovis school administrators Steve Weil and Dan Kaiser, as well as school psychologist Denise Segal. The panel's unanimous recommendation will now be submitted to the school board, which has 10 working days to hold a hearing and vote whether to uphold, modify or reject the panel's recommendation.
Thursday's hearing took nearly 11 hours in a small room at Clovis Unified headquarters. Hill's supporters, as well as those supporting the alleged victim, packed the room.
From start to end, lawyers for both sides fought over the evidence, which included tearful testimony from Buchanan head wrestling coach Tyrell Blanche, who said he felt Hill was getting a raw deal.
Blanche said Hill would never do anything to intentionally harm another person or lie. "He's one of the most honest kids I have ever met," Blanche said.
Blanche testified that when he wants a wrestler to do a butt-drag maneuver, he yells out, "Grab booty!" Blanche said he teaches his wrestlers to grab the leg right below the butt cheeks for the move.
"But when it's a live match, and a lot is on the line," Blanche said, anything can happen, even penetration of an opponent's anus. After seeing the coach cry, Hill's mother, Kristin Hill, left the hearing in tears. She quickly returned.
Buchanan wrestler Kyle Blumen testified that he didn't see Hill do anything wrong at the July practice. He also said the teammate never complained.
The butt drag is a common wrestling move, and sometimes fingers inadvertently penetrate the anus, Blumen said.
"It's happened to me," he said. "It's no fun, but it happens."
Clovis police officer Mark Bradford told the panel he had questions about whether a crime had been committed. He said he interviewed both boys, but found no physical evidence on the boy's underwear.
Bradford said he never arrested Hill. Instead, he wrote a police report and let the District Attorney's Office decide to charge Hill.
The alleged victim also testified, but the public was not allowed to hear his comments. His parents, however, gave a detailed account of how their son told them that Hill had bullied him by taking his water bottle. After their son stood up to to Hill, Hill made a threatening gesture with his fingers to say he was going to use the butt-drag move.
To corroborate the boy's account, the school district's attorney, Tom Manniello, submitted a declaration from another wrestler. That wrestler saw Hill make a gesture with his fingers, but it was not the same gesture reported by the alleged victim.
Bradford said he also found discrepancies. The boy told him that Hill's two fingers penetrated his anus for 30 seconds. He said Hill had stated he "grabbed the boy's butt" for three seconds, but never penetrated the anus.
Bradford said he believed Hill's version was correct. "It sounded inadvertent," the officer testified.
Manniello, however, said Hill's actions warranted expulsion. To find the sexual-battery allegation true, he said, the panel would have to conclude that Hill touched an person's private parts, did it against the person's will and did it to cause intimidation or humiliation.
After an hour of deliberations, the panel concluded that Hill committed sexual battery, which carries an automatic expulsion. The panel also found other grounds to expel Hill: that he bullied his teammate, committed an obscene act, and caused or attempted to cause injury to another student.
The panel, however, rejected an allegation that Hill had disrupted school activities and defied school officials.
Before the panel concluded its finding, Hill's attorney, Charles Magill, left the hearing. He had predicted the outcome, accusing the panel members of having their minds made up and describing the panel's deliberations as "putting lipstick on a pig."