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Christian fellowship representative proselytized in Hillsborough schools for years without clearance

David Gaskill, who works for the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, has been banned from Hillsborough County School District campuses for proselytizing, and because he never submitted to a background screening that would have revealed his two misdemeanor convictions. [Fellowship for Christian Athletes]
Published Jun. 17, 2016

TAMPA — In plain sight, a man with two criminal convictions led prayers and discussed Jesus with athletes at five Hillsborough County public high schools.

For years he entered the campuses freely and without proper screening, led students in prayer, and posted dozens of Facebook pictures, some in locker rooms — activities that violated district policies on proselytizing and raised issues of student safety.

"Tonight I spoke with the Tampa Bay Tech baseball team about putting God first and having a team prayer leader prior to the game tonight," one of his Facebook posts said.

To hear David Gaskill of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes tell it, coaches knew what he was doing. They asked him to be chaplain. Assistant principals sat with him at team banquets. Kids knew him as the Gatorade guy and the prayer man.

But it took an April 13 complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group, to get Hillsborough school officials to take a close look at Gaskill, 55.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough school district reviewing relationships with faith-based partners\

RELATED: Eakins says Christian clubs in Hillsborough public schools support district's 'cultural model'

On Thursday, officials said Gaskill has been banned indefinitely from campuses. Earlier this week they told the fellowship, a 62-year-old organization, that it cannot send adults to any schools until after they attend a training session on Monday.

"Any time there's a complaint or there might be either a misunderstanding or a lack of understanding of our policies, if we want to move forward with an organization, we want to make sure we have clarity," said Superintendent Jeff Eakins.

Originally from Mt. Holly, N.J., Gaskill played three high school sports and was a youth coach for 13 years before he moved to Tampa in 2006, according to his biography on the fellowship website.

That's when things went downhill.

Substance addictions, a struggle for decades, got the better of him. "I lost my wife of 24 years," Gaskill said. "I lost my job of 24 years, my house, my dog, everything."

He was caught in 2006 with cocaine in his car. He said it belonged to his passenger. But he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possessing drug paraphernalia. He wanted drug rehabilitation, he said.

In 2007, he ignored a restraining order from his ex-wife and was charged with aggravated stalking. "Stalking is such a scary word," he said. As he describes it, he was calling her and texting her, begging for forgiveness.

Again, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

That's around the time he felt a calling to become a minister. He worked briefly as a hospital chaplain. At one point he was cleared to be a speaker in Hillsborough County schools.

But working after school, when supervision is lax, required a higher level of screening.

He never got it. Supporting himself as a delivery driver, he spent time at the schools anyway.

Gaskill said he never pushed religion on kids, but merely offered it as an option. He was active at Wharton, Tampa Bay Tech, Middleton, Freedom and King high schools.

"I would go into an area and tell kids my testimony," he said. "A lot of these kids don't have parents. They want to hear some good news. I've spoken with thousands of kids. Nobody has ever once had a complaint."

Yes, he said, there were interactions on social media. "The kids follow me and I follow them."

He said he was "blindsided" by the complaint from the advocacy group. There are "certain people who are against God," he said.

In Madison, Wis., lawyer Andrew Seidel said the Freedom From Religion Foundation was contacted by someone affiliated with one of the schools.

It was an easy case to build. The Facebook pictures and long posts were there for the clicking.

"After 3 players in my schools had babies last month I felt a need to have a heart-to-heart talk with football players at King High School about God's rules on sex," says one.

Another: "Teams that pray together … play together."

He described his extensive access and the fact that, after a cold Gatorade, students often are receptive to accepting Jesus. He mused about parents who didn't seem to care.

In the aftermath of its investigation, the district told the fellowship to have all school-based pictures removed from social media. The page Gaskill used for his posts is now members-only.

As with similar issues that have arisen this year in Hillsborough public schools, the district is walking a fine line between students' rights to assembly and free speech and the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishing a preferred religion.

The Equal Access Act of 1984 allows students to gather, pray, discuss religion and even invite adults to participate.

But one adult cannot make repeated, regular visits or lead the effort. "This is not even close to a close case," Seidel said. "It's so beyond the pale, it's amazing."

As for how Gaskill conducted his missionary activities without interference from coaches or athletic directors, Seidel said, "anyone in administration with a modicum of understanding or training would have known what was going on was illegal."

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja insisted, "The district didn't necessarily know about it." Nevertheless, she said, coaches will be re-trained in district policies as well.

Gaskill said he is taking the ban in stride.

"I believe in God," he said. "I trust in God and I know he has my back."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Records show David Gaskill pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors. An earlier version of the photo caption with this story contained an incorrect description of his criminal record.

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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