FRESNO — An elementary school principal in Fresno shot and killed himself as sheriff’s deputies prepared to search his home as part of a child sex abuse investigation that will continue in the aftermath of the suspect’s suicide, authorities said.
Fresno County deputies were approaching Orange Center Elementary principal Lance Clement’s house in Hanford on Friday morning when they heard a shot inside, Lt. John Golden said. Clement, 42, was pronounced dead at the scene.
The principal, who had been the lead administrator at Orange Center for four years and also served as its district superintendent, had been under investigation in the week since a school employee reported seeing him in his office with a female fifth-grader and the lights off, Sheriff Margaret Mims said.
Mims told the Fresno Bee the investigators determined that nothing inappropriate had happened but remained concerned after interviews with more than 20 students revealed Clement had often summoned young girls to his office and produced evidence of one case that may have led her office to seek charges of sexual battery or lewd acts with a minor.
The interviews also revealed that Clement had given several of the girls gifts.
“Definitely, unethical behavior took place,” the sheriff said.
Authorities obtained a search warrant for Clement’s home after they found the hard drive missing from his school computer, Mims said. They plan to continue the investigation with computer they found in the search, she said.
“Our concern now are for any students that might need some counseling help, to find out exactly what happened,” Mims said. “In addition to that, the parents need to know.”
School trustees took Clement’s keys and placed him on administrative leave with pay on Wednesday, which was the last day of school at Orange Center, said Camilla Sutherland, a school improvement coordinator with the Fresno County Office of Education. No students were on campus when word of his death reached the school, Sutherland said.
“We’ve had a couple of staff members, a couple of parents have come in just to talk,” she told The Bee. “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.”
Former Orange Center school board member Gene Balthrop said the allegations and suicide left him “in complete shock.” He told The Bee the board has never received any complaints about Clement’s behavior from students, parents or staff members.
Orange Center Elementary serves about 350 students from pre-kindergarten to grade 8 and is located a little less than a mile outside the Fresno city limits. Before he became principal there, Clement spent three years as principal of Parkview Middle School in Kings County.