Thursday, January 18, 2018
Editorials

Ex-principal Van Gorden should resign as Zephyrhills mayor

Until last week, Steve Van Gorden served Zephyrhills simultaneously as high school principal, mayor, chamber of commerce president, and president-elect of the Rotary Club. Tuesday, the Pasco School Board accepted Van Gorden's resignation as principal amid an investigation of sexual harassment complaints against him.

Van Gorden, 37, now needs to do likewise with his other position of public trust. He should quit his role as mayor. He is unfit to represent the city, even if the mayor's position is largely ceremonial with no voting authority during council meetings. The city ambassador needs to be respected and Van Gorden's uncouth behavior as principal will tarnish the city as well.

Witness accounts contained in the district's investigative file portray Van Gorden as a bully toward subordinate women who rejected his unwelcome sexual advances. The unseemly activity included using crude language to comment on women's figures, requesting sex acts and seeking a romantic quid pro quo from one aspiring administrator to whom Van Gorden acted as mentor.

One teacher who rejected a personal relationship with Van Gorden lost her classroom and was assigned as a floater with no desk nor cart to transport teaching materials.

Van Gorden called another into his office and threatened to fire her for making what he called untrue accusations against him.

He told a third, "I know too many people in the district. I am a very important person.''

That ego combined with his poor judgment turned a high school learning environment into a frat-like atmosphere. With students sitting nearby, he once asked a woman if she had any creams or salves to make him aroused and told her, "I want it applied correctly. Could you do it for me?''

Women said Van Gorden and other unnamed male employees ranked female co-workers according to physical attractiveness including breast size. And, the plant manager, who Van Gorden instructed to inquire whether a new employee was interested in him romantically, told investigators he once walked into a portable classroom and found Van Gorden with his pants in his hand and a female staff member looking frazzled. Students later joked about their principal heading to the portable for a "quickie.''

Sadly, there is no humor in Van Gorden's lack of professionalism that humiliated female employees and left them fearful for their careers. At least one sought mental health help through the district's employee assistance program and others applied for jobs at other schools. One woman told of walking outside, even in the rain, to avoid contact with her principal. Another said she put a sheet of paper on her window and worked with the lights out so she wouldn't have to interact with Van Gorden while alone in her office.

In submitting his resignation last week, Van Gorden told Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek he was sorry for his mistakes and that he "let my personal life jeopardize my judgment.''

He still doesn't get it. Van Gorden didn't jeopardize his judgment; he annihilated it. And, this is not about his personal life. It is about his professional conduct in which he created a hostile work environment by attempting to use his position of authority to obtain sexual gratification from subordinates. His behavior is disgraceful.

The office of mayor should be one of dignity that commands public respect. Van Gorden's actions as principal diminish both attributes. He can best serve the public now by allowing someone else to represent the citizens of Zephyrhills as mayor.

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