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Former Zephyrhills principal accused of 'unwanted advances'

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County School Board officially accepted the resignation of Steve Van Gorden as Zephyrhills High School principal on Tuesday, releasing a 346-page investigative file detailing numerous accusations of sexual harassment against him.

Several school employees told investigators that Van Gorden, who also is the mayor of Zephyrhills, made unwanted sexual advances and comments toward them, creating an uncomfortable and threatening workplace.

"It got to the point where I could not take it anymore," one woman told investigators.

The situation was such that one male employee told district interviewers that he would "probably not" want his wife to work at Zephyrhills High with Van Gorden as principal, "Especially since she is good-looking."

Van Gorden, 37, said he didn't agree with all of the details in the report, some of which he hadn't seen before Tuesday. But he didn't plan to "split hairs" over the accusations.

"The bottom line is, I screwed up," he told the Times.

He said he was remorseful for his inappropriate actions, and sorry that he hurt employees and that his children will have to suffer what comes next. He added that he never had malicious intent or the goal of jeopardizing anyone's career.

"My goal in life was always to be a high school principal," Van Gorden said. "I'm paying a very severe consequence. I think it's justified. … I did not conduct myself in the manner that I should."

The board approved the appointment of Ridgewood High principal Andy Frelick to take over Zephyrhills High effective Wednesday.

The investigative report contains no summary from the district because investigators stopped their work when Van Gorden, confronted with their findings, submitted his letter of resignation on Friday. It does include investigative notes, letters from employees and a series of text messages and Facebook chats between Van Gorden and some of his staffers.

They reveal that many people knew of Van Gorden's comments and advances during his three-year tenure at the school. Once the district's employee relations department began inquiring about Van Gorden, the accusations surged forth.

One woman, who accused Van Gorden of asking her to "do it" on his office desk, said the principal frequently spoke of women in crude manners. She told investigators that he could be a nice guy and was a good principal, but he should have known better.

"I knew this could happen," she said. "Someone would report him."

Another employee said Van Gorden frequently made comments about one young teacher's breasts. And another employee told investigators that Van Gorden "consistently looked me up and down, particularly at my chest. … I chose to disregard his advances as I found them extremely inappropriate and they made me very uncomfortable."

One time, she said, another employee inquired on the principal's behalf whether she would be interested in dating Van Gorden. She said no, and then found herself subjected to retaliation in the form of losing a classroom and being assigned as a floating teacher, among other things.

Asked on Tuesday whether he plans to continue serving as Zephyrhills mayor, a post he's held since April, Van Gorden said he would take things "one day at a time." His colleagues on the City Council said they were stunned by the allegations, but wanted to see the report and hear from Van Gorden themselves.

"If I was on the other side of the fence, I'd want people to be fair," said council member Charlie Proctor.

Council member Lance Smith said he talked to Van Gorden privately after news of the investigation became public and Van Gorden resigned from his job. Van Gorden admitted he had engaged in unprofessional behavior, but did not go into detail, Smith said.

"I've kind of been taken aback by the whole thing," said Smith, adding that he believes Van Gorden is doing a good job overall as mayor. "I hate that it's happened."

Leading up to the release of the report, several people wrote letters to the board supporting Van Gorden, who had been on administrative leave since Oct. 19.

Larry Robertson, a substitute teacher at the school, even urged the School Board during its meeting not to accept Van Gorden's resignation.

"We understand Mr. Van Gorden, I'll call him Steve, probably did something inappropriate," Robertson said before the files were released. "But we certainly feel the punishment does not fit the crime."

The board's action was unanimous and without comment. The district will forward its report on Van Gorden to the state Department of Education professional practices division, which could punish him up to revoking his teacher certification in Florida.

Times correspondent Lorie Jewell contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Former Zephyrhills principal accused of 'unwanted advances' 11/06/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 9:59pm]
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