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Allegations of sexual harassment by Van Gorden began in 2009

ZEPHYRHILLS — The walls started crumbling around Zephyrhills High School principal Steve Van Gorden in late September.

That's when one of his employees filed a sexual harassment complaint against him, which opened the floodgates to allegations dating back almost to his 2009 arrival at the school. His resignation came within weeks.

"When somebody asked them, they spilled their guts," assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose said of the high school faculty and staff.

It was almost as if they had just been waiting for someone to ask the right questions, said DuBose, who oversaw the investigation. Some employees guessed what was at stake as soon as they saw the investigators.

"Is this about Steve and sexual harassment?" one asked when entering the room for an Oct. 23 interview. "It must be."

"I worried something like this could happen," another said.

Despite quick action this time around, it took nearly three years for the district to get to this point. According to district records, someone reported concerns about Van Gorden during the 2009-10 school year. When nothing came of that investigation, the message received by staffers who endured his sexual comments and unwelcome advances was clear:

Van Gorden wasn't going anywhere.

• • •

Van Gorden's personnel file contained no mention of the previous allegation.

But the 346-page investigative file compiled and released this fall — which included years of evaluations and letters of support for Van Gorden — also included statements by current and former employees alleging misconduct. They alleged various incidents, from Van Gorden frequently commenting about a young teacher's breasts to asking one colleague if she would apply "creams or salves" to arouse him.

"I couldn't answer him. There were children everywhere," the woman told investigators. "Besides, what do you say to that?"

Another employee described reporting an incident shortly after it happened during the 2009-10 school year.

A staffer told of finding Van Gorden in a portable classroom during work hours "at the back door with pants in hand," and a female employee "frazzled" inside the portable. Another referred to that incident as well, relating that students sometimes would speak of their principal's "quickie."

It's unclear whether the alleged incident happened before or after Van Gorden's wife filed for divorce in November 2009.

The second employee spoke of reporting the matter to Jim Davis, who was assistant superintendent for high schools. Davis, who retired in early 2011, declined last week to comment to the Times. Summer Robertson, district spokeswoman at the time, said district officials inquired about the incident but found no proof of inappropriate activities. Van Gorden and the employee both denied the encounter.

Davis, who married a high school assistant principal while he was supervising high schools, also gave minimal punishments to other administrators who had affairs with subordinates. At the time, district policies did not specifically prohibit such relationships. But the district had policies to address situations in which employees exhibit poor judgment or immoral behavior.

Davis did not take any action on Van Gorden — and he did not tell the superintendent about the allegation.

"I was a little disappointed I wasn't told about quite a few things," said superintendent Heather Fiorentino, who later pushed to strengthen the district's policies against bosses dating or having sexual relationships with their subordinate employees. Such policies were adopted only in the past year.

Fiorentino said she was particularly upset that she learned of the 2009-10 allegation against Van Gorden, and Davis' limited response, only as part of this latest investigation.

"Had I known about it, he would have been gone," she said of Van Gorden.

• • •

As it stood, though, people at Zephyrhills High saw their principal as someone who didn't pay for the things he had done, according to their statements to the district. That appearance only gave more leverage to his words, as several reported, that he had "a lot of power."

Beyond campus, Van Gorden, 37, was a former Dade City commissioner who became the mayor of Zephyrhills in April. He served as president of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce and president-elect of the Zephyrhills Noon Rotary. Previously the principal of Hudson Middle School, Van Gorden had ambitions to someday run for Pasco schools superintendent.

One female employee wrote that she confronted Van Gorden with allegations of sexual harassment, bringing a union representative to the meeting. She told investigators that Van Gorden responded that he could fire her for making such allegations.

She left feeling "frightened and intimidated."

It got to the point that, rather than report his actions, many staffers walked on eggshells around him, and avoided him when possible.

"We felt powerless to address (the harassment) since he had so much influence over both our professional career, but also in our graduate education," another employee wrote, noting Van Gorden served as an adviser to several employees seeking master's degrees. "I personally chose to go to work, say very little to anyone and try to avoid any contact with Mr. Van Gorden unless professionally necessary."

One female employee wrote in a statement that Van Gorden not only made suggestive comments and unwanted advances to her, but also made inappropriate statements about other employees to her. She could not deter him, so she transferred.

"I likely would have stayed at the school for a longer period of time if I didn't feel as though my job performance may be reported as poor if he didn't get his way, personally or professionally," she wrote. "I was tired of having to endure the constant comments he made."

• • •

It wasn't until September that an employee made another complaint to the district office.

This female employee wrote that Van Gorden pressured her for "alone time favors" and repeatedly said that she "owed" him for her job opportunities. She stated that he encouraged her to cheat on her boyfriend with him, and threatened her when she discussed her growing concerns about his behavior with others.

"I cannot talk to people for fear of jeopardizing my career," she wrote. "I have so much fear and anxiety about returning to work. . . . I just want out!"

One of her colleagues encouraged her to come forward. She did after hearing DuBose give a college lecture about sexual harassment in the workplace.

"This young lady came forward with courage," DuBose said. "She was convinced I needed to do something about it."

DuBose launched an investigation with the employee relations staff. And within weeks, they had compiled a set of written statements, interviews, text messages, Facebook chats and other information that ultimately convinced Van Gorden to resign before he could be fired.

He admitted his poor judgment and said he abused his position of leadership.

"I believe several of them were waiting for someone to come ask," DuBose said of the Zephyrhills High staff. "When somebody finally told, we did not have reluctant witnesses."

She did not fault them for failing to report Van Gorden's antics.

"It's easy to say what they should have done," DuBose said. "When the person who holds your future in his hands says those things, you start thinking . . . 'Jobs are hard to come by.' "

He talks about how he's the Zephyrhills mayor, chamber of commerce president, Rotary president, and so forth, DuBose said, and "you start thinking twice."

That scenario troubled School Board member Steve Luikart, a retired high school assistant principal.

"It's a very, very substantial concern," Luikart said. "What happened at Zephyrhills High School disturbed and surprised a lot of us. . . . It needs to be corrected. We need to have staff know their complaints will be followed up."

Superintendent-elect Kurt Browning agreed, and said he will do what he can to create a culture where employees are not afraid to report harassment, and will know the district will investigate — as it did nearly three years after the first report was not addressed.

"If anybody knows this is going on . . . it needs to be dealt with," he said. "It totally sidetracks us."

Employees with complaints of sexual harassment should bring them to the district employee relations department, DuBose said.

Even before the Van Gorden incident, DuBose said, she and employee relations director Kevin Shibley created a new training session on sexual harassment for all administrators, and eventually all employees. She has talked to Browning about kicking it off before winter break, saying it's clear that everyone could use a "booster" sooner rather than later.

The main point, she said, is that employees understand their rights and responsibilities, and trust the district to do the right thing.

"I wonder," DuBose said, "if the one woman had not been in my class how long it would have been before anybody told."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Allegations of sexual harassment by Van Gorden began in 2009 11/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 12:28pm]

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