Fresno Co. school panel backs butt-drag expulsion

A third panel of school officials has decided that expulsion was the right punishment for a Buchanan High student who was accused of sexual battery after grabbing a teammate's butt cheek while executing a wrestling move during practice.

The Fresno County Board of Education on Thursday upheld Clovis Unified School District's decision to expel Preston Hill. The Clovis board of trustees had followed the recommendation of its expulsion panel.

But Hill's lawyers said Thursday he still isn't ready to give up. They plan to ask a Fresno County Superior Court judge to cancel the expulsion.

"We want some real judges to look at this," said attorney Laura Guzman Magill.

Hill's case has generated widespread attention ever since the alleged victim told Clovis police that Hill rammed two fingers into his anus during a practice at Buchanan in July. Hill, however, told police he never threatened the boy, and that he used a legitimate wrestling move called a "butt-drag" when he grabbed the boy's butt cheek without penetrating the anus.

When Clovis school trustees voted unanimously Jan. 19 to expel Hill, they agreed he had committed sexual battery, bullied his teammate, committed an obscene act and caused or attempted to cause physical injury to another student.

But there has been plenty of disagreement -- and Thursday's hearing highlighted that.

After 80 minutes of deliberations over whether to toss out the expulsion, trustees Delbert Cederquist, Keith Eubanks and Barbara Thomas voted to uphold it. Trustees Allen Clyde and Sally Tannenbaum dissented, saying Hill hadn't received a fair hearing in front of the Clovis Unified School District board.

After the vote, Clyde, a former member of the Clovis Unified school board, said the panel almost voted the other way. One trustee was undecided until the end, he said.

Because deliberations are private, Clyde declined to name the trustee who "waffled back and forth" on whether to reinstate the senior.

"It could have gone either way, and it went down to the wire," Clyde said.

A key point of contention, he said, was whether Hill's wrestling move constituted sexual battery, which the Clovis Unified lawyer argued was an expellable offense under the "zero-tolerance" policy.

"I have a concern for zero tolerance," Clyde said. "If left unchecked, a school district can use it as a weapon. I think Clovis Unified could have done some things better."

Hill and his parents left the downtown Education Office without commenting. Guzman Magill and her attorney-husband, Charles Magill, said they will ask a Superior Court judge to determine whether Hill received a fair expulsion hearing.

They contend there wasn't enough evidence to support Hill's expulsion in the first place. "We think they abused their discretion," Guzman Magill said.

Attorney Frank Fekete, who represents the Clovis Unified school board, however, said the county education board made "the right decision."

If the case winds up in court, Fekete said, the school district will have no problem defending its decision, because three separate school panels have voted to expel Hill.

Hill has not attended Buchanan this school year because he began the school year on suspension. In addition to being kicked out of school, Hill also was charged with sexual battery in Fresno County Superior Court.

The criminal charge was dismissed Jan. 27 without Hill having to admit wrongdoing after he and his teammate attended an educational program.

The program was organized by members of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's SHARE program. SHARE stands for Stop Hate and Respect Everyone. The two also wrote essays about what they learned.

According to the teammate and his parents, Hill had bullied the freshman by taking his water bottle. After their son stood up to to Hill, Hill made a threatening gesture with his fingers to indicate that he was going to use the butt-drag move, they say.

At Thursday's hearing, Magill said Hill never bullied the boy, and that the boy and his parents have given conflicting accounts.

In addition, Magill said Hill didn't get a fair hearing in front of the three-member school expulsion panel on Jan. 13.

One problem, Magill said, is that the lawyer representing the school district and the lawyer advising the panel had a conflict of interest, because they worked for the same law firm.

The lawyers didn't notify the panel of the conflict before the hearing, Magill said.

But Fekete said the two lawyers worked in different cities and never talked "before or during the case."

Magill also there was no evidence that Hill bullied the boy or committed a sexual battery, noting for the record that police found no physical evidence on the boy's gym shorts or underwear to support his account.

Fekete, however, said the evidence against Hill is clear-cut.

"He committed an intentional act to humiliate, threaten and bully the boy," he said.