By B.C. Manion
Steve Van Gorden’s resignation from the principal’s post at Zephyrhills High may have implications regarding his other high-profile roles in the city.
While he has left his role as principal, Van Gorden remains the city’s mayor and is president of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce. When or if those roles will change remains unclear.
Ken Compton, president of the Zephyrhills City Council, has asked city attorney Joe Poblick to collect the facts, review the city charter and provide a list of options, according to City Councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson. She said she received that information from city manager Jim Drumm.
The earliest the issue could be considered by council is Nov. 26, Drumm said.
“That’s prudent for the city to do that,” Van Gorden said, adding that he has no intention of stepping down and that he continues to work on improving the city’s economic prospects.
Vonnie Mikkelson, executive director of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, was out of town, but issued this statement via email: “Presently, I am in consultation with the chamber’s key board leadership to determine next steps, if any are to be taken. This is a board of superior community and business leaders, and I have the utmost confidence in their ability to assess the situation and determine whether or not any action regarding Mr. Van Gorden’s role with the chamber is necessitated by these developments.”
She also noted that Van Gorden “has been a consistent and reliable leader at the chamber of commerce and has not skipped a beat when it comes to serving the community in this particular leadership role.”
Van Gorden said he won’t resign from the chamber post unless he’s asked to do so.
Van Gorden’s resignation from the school district came amidst an investigation into claims of sexual harassment.
The Pasco County School Board voted unanimously on Nov. 6 to accept Van Gorden’s resignation, without comment. They appointed Andrew Frelick as the high school’s new principal.
After the board accepted Van Gorden’s resignation, the district released a 346-page investigative file.
Van Gorden noted the size of the investigative report is misleading because roughly 180 pages are related to employment contracts, evaluations and other materials.
The allegations range from Van Gorden using crude language and sexual innuendo to using intimidation.
Van Gorden acknowledges some of the actions contained in the report, but denies others.
“I did make some mistakes,” he said. “They throw 100 things out there. I admit to 15. I’m not owning up to 100.”
Van Gorden denies using intimidation.
One employee told an investigator that Van Gorden made unwelcome sexual suggestions and that she had become so uncomfortable she “would take all measures” to avoid seeing him, even walking outside the school building in the rain.
She said she had so much anxiety that she sought help from the employee assistance program.
Another employee told an investigator she wasn’t surprised that the school district was looking into complaints about sexual harassment involving Van Gorden. She said she and her colleagues had expected it to happen.
The employee told the investigator that Van Gorden spoke disrespectfully to women. In one instance, she alleged Van Gorden put his hands on the desk and said “we should do it.”
Van Gorden denied that allegation.
A different employee alleged she was uncomfortable by the way Van Gorden looked at her. She told the investigator she “felt like he looked at her chest, not eyes.”
Van Gorden called that claim “ridiculous.”
Another employee told an investigator “you have to be careful about what words you use” because Van Gorden would twist the meaning. For instance, she alleged, a conversation about a school position could be turned into a comment by Van Gorden about a “sexual position.”
Van Gorden acknowledged twisting words, but said when he did so, he was joking and did not intend to be offensive.
“I made off-color remarks, and for that I’m truly sorry,” he said.
Van Gorden did, however, acknowledge that a colleague had warned him on a couple of occasions that his comments were inappropriate.
Van Gorden said many of the allegations involve an employee with whom he’d had a personal relationship.
He also acknowledged that his actions were not in the best interests of the school or the students, but said he has paid a price for his actions by losing his job.
When it came to Van Gorden, another employee told the investigator there were three camps at the school. One group liked him, another group disliked him and the third group just did their job and went home.
During Van Gorden’s investigation, the school district placed him on leave. Officials also refused to provide any information about the investigation except that it did not involve criminal conduct or students.
In response to that action, about two dozen people wrote to the district on Van Gorden’s behalf. In general, they praised his leadership, described him as a caring administrator, said he embodied school spirit and lauded his ability to bring the school and community together.
Those letters of support were submitted before the district released its report.
Andrew Frelick has been transferred from Ridgewood High to fill the vacancy at Zephyrhills High resulting from the resignation of Steve Van Gorden.
Frelick began his career in Pasco County in 1985 as a teacher at Pasco Middle. In 1987, he transferred to Pasco High. He was promoted to assistant principal at Marchman Vocational Center in 1991. He transferred to Pine View Middle in 1994.
In 1996, he was promoted to principal at Weightman Middle, and in 1999, he transferred to Wesley Chapel High when the school opened. He became principal of Ridgewood in 2009.