BROOKSVILLE — One fact is uncontested: Jason Gray, a culinary arts teacher and girls soccer coach at Central High School, drunk dialed one night last April and reached one of his players.
What happened after that is in dispute, but now Gray is looking for another job.
Gray, 37, claims he called the girl by mistake when he tried to call his mother to ask her to pick him up. The student contends that Gray realized who she was and still tried to pressure her to give him a ride home, according to a district investigation report.
District officials concluded that Gray violated the teacher ethics code by sending text messages to the student after the initial phone call that night. Superintendent Bryan Blavatt informed him in a letter of reprimand dated May 7 that his annual contract would not be renewed.
"Specifically, you contacted a student via cell phone," Blavatt wrote. "While you claim this was in error, you proceeded to engage in text messaging with the student. You exercised poor judgment in your professional responsibilities."
During the course of the investigation, two team members alleged that Gray made sexual comments about players. Gray emphatically denies that, and the district's report included no evidence beyond the two students' signed, written statements.
"These allegations baffle me," Gray told the Times on Wednesday. "I know I'm innocent. Prior to that evening I never called that student. I never hung out with students outside of school. My reputation and my name are being … the only word I can think of is trashed."
On April 26, the father of the soccer player called Central principal Joe Clifford to report that Gray had called the student the previous Friday just before midnight "in a state of inebriation asking for a ride home from a bar," according to Clifford's account.
"I answered and he asked what I was doing," the student recalled in a written statement. "I responded that I was at a friend's house. He then asked me to pick him up from a bar off of (U.S.) 41. I asked him if he knew who he was talking to and he said, 'I know it's you, (student's name).' "
The student said she told Gray she had to be home by 1 a.m. and could not give him a ride.
"He then said, 'You really aren't going to do this for me?' and I said no and hung up," the student wrote.
According to Clifford, the student showed him several text messages that Gray sent after that conversation. The messages said some form of the phrase, "I'm sorry." One message said, "I'm sorry, bad influence."
According to Clifford, when he asked Gray about the incident, Gray responded that he didn't know who he called that evening. "He stated that he blacked out and didn't remember anything," Clifford wrote in his report.
In an interview with district officials May 5, Gray said he was out watching hockey and drinking with friends that night and decided not to drive home. He said he scrolled through the contacts in his phone intending to find his mother's number, but accidentally called the soccer player.
He said he had the student's number in his phone because he sometimes called players or they called him for logistical reasons related to practices, games and transportation.
Gray said he heard a female voice pick up, thought it was his mother and said he needed a ride home. When he realized his mistake, he said, he apologized and hung up. He said he sent the student three text messages afterward to say he was sorry.
"I called a number on my phone and simply called the wrong person," Gray told district officials. "I know it's still unacceptable."
At first he said he could not recall whether he said, "You're really not going to do this for me?" When pressed by district officials, he denied it.
Two players gave written, signed statements saying Gray had made sexually inappropriate comments about team members.
"Some of them are how he would like to have sex with some, and if he had to choose … it would be (student's name)," one of the players wrote.
"Coach Gray has made us feel uncomfortable for quite some time," the other girl wrote. "We feel as though we needed to say something to protect our family. He has crossed the line too many times, especially after the phone call he made this weekend."
Gray told officials he didn't get along with those players. He said he suspects the student he called put them up to making the statements.
One of those students "told me to my face that she didn't like me," Gray told the Times Wednesday. "I never said anything sexual about students or players."
Several team members and culinary students submitted signed letters in Gray's defense, saying he was being treated unfairly and should keep his coaching and teaching jobs.
"It's been hard to go to school without hearing the obcene (sic) fabricated stories about him," one student wrote, "but regardless of the hearsay it's a known fact that Coach Gray has never crossed the line with any of the players and/or managers on the team."
"Coach Gray was always professional about his job, I trust him all my heart and truly believe he is a good person," wrote another student.
Gray spent 10 years in the Navy and has an associate's degree from Le Cordon Bleu. He worked as a chef before joining the district last year.
He said he had two excellent performance reviews this year and has coached in youth recreational soccer leagues for 18 years without incident. He said he doesn't plan to fight for his job and hopes to teach culinary arts in another school district.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.