Deliberations resumed on Monday in trial of former Hilton principal accused of sexually abusing students
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Deliberations have resumed on Monday morning in the trial of Kirk Ashton, the former Hilton elementary school principal accused of sexually abusing 26 students over a nearly two-decade period.
The jury of 12 started deliberating on Thursday evening.
On Friday, the jurors spent most of the day listening to readbacks of witness testimony, which included several students, their parents, and Northwood School Employees. If convicted, Ashton could face up to 20 years in prison.
The defense rested its case on Thursday and opted to move on to deliberations. Ashton decided he was not going to testify on his behalf and his lawyers did not call any other witnesses.
In closing arguments on Thursday, Ashton’s attorney Jason Housel admitted his client was a bit “touchy-feely” when interacting with some of his male students but said that those interactions took place out in the open at Northwood Elementary.
Housel even questioned the credibility of some of the victim’s testimony arguing that they may have been coached by the prosecution. Housel said some of the boys had a hard time answering “unscripted” questions about when they met with the prosecution team but were able to remember alleged sexual abuse from a few years ago.
Housel also maintained that when the boys were in Ashton’s office The door was always open in full view of other staff members. Housel reminded the jury that not one school employee ever reported Ashton during his 17-year tenure at the school. Prosecutors have long argued that Ashton demonstrated a pattern of predatory behavior.
Assistant District Attorney Sara van Strydonk told the jury “all the boys” described a pattern of “grooming” by Ashton from the way he rubbed the back of their necks and tousled their hair to touching their private parts under their clothes. She asked the jury to come back with a guilty verdict on all counts against Ashton.
Judge Alex Renzi dropped three of the charges against Ashton so he now faces 50 counts. Out of the 26 victims, the testimonies from 24 will be considered by the jury.
On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecution rested its case. The first witness to take the stand on Wednesday was the school’s former assistant principal who says she worked with Ashton for six years.
Just like so many witnesses before her, the former assistant principal told the jury that she also observed Principal Ashton only interact with young male students. She said her office was right next door to Ashton’s, and there were students in there daily.
While many of them were sent down for behavioral problems, she says others were there to get some extra reading help. The assistant principal says she did see several students sitting on Ashton’s lap and said that to her it “skewed boundaries” between staff and student.
A short video was played in the courtroom showing a male student sitting on the lap of a male adult, who prosecutors believe is Ashton. The adult is seen touching the boy’s hair, then rubbing the back of his neck, also touching the boy’s back and tugging on the boy’s earlobe a few times. The video, presumably shot by a cell phone, lasted less than 30 seconds.
On October 11, the second week of the trial, more victims took the stand to share what they say happened behind closed doors in Ashton’s office at Hilton’s Northwood Elementary. One longtime teacher also testified about Ashton’s behavior with mostly male students.
The teacher said it seemed like Ashton took more of an interest in male students than female students. She recalled how one time Ashton came into her classroom to talk to a male student who was having a problem that day. She claimed Ashton leaned over the boy, and whispered something in his ear before ruffling his hair. The teacher said she the interaction stood out to her, and seemed wrong.
Earlier in the day some former male students recounted how they often went to Ashton’s office. They were either sent there for misbehaving in class, or invited by Ashton to be a part of his “Lunch Bunch” group. The group would eat their lunch in his office, or get extra help with their reading. Each says Ashton inappropriately touched them on multiple occasions.
On October 5, the second day of the trial, two victims testified. Both students alleged they were touched inappropriately by Ashton while in his office.
After the boys told their parents what happened to them, both police and Bivona Child Advocacy Center were called. Both boys told the jury how they were allegedly touched, first behind their necks, then in their “private areas” by their former principal. The mother of one of the boys also testified.
She said that at first she didn’t reach out to the police because her son only told her during Christmas Break of 2020 that he touched the boy’s neck. Her son said it made him feel “weird and uncomfortable.”
It wasn’t until rumors started to circulate in spring 2021 about Ashton being investigated for alleged sexual abuse that she reached out to the Bivona Child Advocacy Center.
One Senior Forensic Interviewer for the agency described how she not only interviews one of the victims but was able to get the victim to give more details of the alleged sexual abuse than he was providing his parents.
Also called to the stand was a New York State Police Investigator, who talked about the start of the investigation. He described how there were lots of pictures of just young male students in Ashton’s office. He went on to talk about the steps taken to interview school staff and students.