ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Former Northwood Elementary Principal Kirk Ashton was found guilty Monday on a majority of charges after allegations of him sexually abusing students.
Ashton was arrested in 2021 and accused of sexually abusing more than 20 male students during his 17-year tenure. He faced 50 criminal counts in total, including endangering the welfare of a child, first-degree sexual abuse, and second-degree sexual conduct against a child. He was found guilty on 46 of those 50 counts.
Opening statements began on October 4. The oldest victim who testified is currently 21. Ashton was charged with sexual abuse for incidents that happened as recently as Spring 2021.
In court this week, Ashton’s defense claimed the students who testified over the nearly three-week trial were given “scripted testimonies” after spending time with the prosecution.
One minor who testified said Ashton would often compliment how he was doing in class, and occasionally invite him to join the “lunch bunch” club in his office. The child said girls were never at the lunch meetings.
Then, the child testified to being touched inappropriately and said Ashton asked him to sit on his lap, multiple times.
A parent testified as well, saying her child became agitated while discussing a potential appointment with Ashton. She said her son “didn’t want to go to his office” to discuss school, because he’d “have to sit on his lap.” The parent said she contacted child protective services.
The defense asked the jury to consider “sensationalism” — saying Ashton had no end goal of sexual gratification, and did not knowingly perform the alleged acts.
The prosecution argued the victims were only boys, and always boys. In closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Sara Van Strydonck reviewed several children’s testimonies and described in detail the instances where Ashton allegedly “groomed” them.
In court Friday, jurors received a “read back” of collected testimonies from the students and teachers. Some accused Ashton of putting kids on his lap in his office, and touching their private areas, leaving them shaken and traumatized.
The defense argued some jurors were falling asleep during those “readbacks.” The judge dismissed that.
Per the New York State Department of Corrections, Ashton’s 50 counts — which include endangering the welfare of a child, first-degree sexual abuse, and second-degree sexual conduct against a child — carry a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars.
Aston’s sentencing is scheduled for November 23, 2022.
In a letter obtained by News 8 November 2, Hilton Central School District Board of Education President Mark Hilburger addressed the verdict, and announced changes made to school policy to prevent future crimes against students.
“As we look forward, our highest priority is continuously reinforcing a culture of recognizing harmful actions and reporting concerns appropriately,” Hillburger stated. “Among steps already taken, we have put our entire staff through Mandated Reporter training and are providing additional training on child sexual abuse and prevention. We recognize the need to empower staff to support each other, and to take the essential steps needed to protect and defend our students.”
The Hilton Central School District responded to the verdict in a statement sent to parents of students, saying:
“The Hilton Central School District is grateful for today’s verdict and humbled by the courage and commitment of all who were victimized, including present and former students and their families. We thank the District Attorney’s office, New York State Police, and counselors at Bivona Child Advocacy Center for their sensitive and determined hard work to bring the facts to light in the pursuit of justice. Our Road to Recovery continues. Our entire professional staff remains focused on measures that will strengthen our policies and practices for observing, reporting and investigating concerns, with the common goal of keeping our children safe. We encourage the community’s continued feedback and involvement in our initiatives. To learn more about the Hilton Central School District’s Road to Recovery Sexual Abuse Prevention Action Plan, visit: Hilton.k12.ny.us/RoadtoRecovery.”
Read the full letter from Hilton BOE President Mark Hilburger below: