When the high school principal in Zephyrhills, Fla., resigned earlier this month, there was an outpouring of grief. But when it was finally disclosed that he left the school because of allegations that he offered teachers promotions in exchange for sex, the community was suddenly split. The former principal is also Zephyrhills' mayor, and a lot of people want him out.
Zephyrhills is a small, lower-middle-class town about a 40 minute-drive from Tampa, best known for the bottled water company that bears its name and a killer skydiving drop zone. Steve Van Gorden, 37, became Zephyrhills High School's principal in May 2009, and was immediately well-liked. And when the Zephyrhills Free Press mentioned Gorden's resignation on its Facebook page on Nov. 2, the response was unanimously mournful.
"Van G was a amazing principal who really cared about all his students and where they were going in life," said ZHS junior Nicole Guerette. "WE LOVE YOU VAN G!" chimed in ZHS senior Marissa Gochenour.
Van Gorden had a sparkling resume for the job, first becoming a principal at age 28, and serving as a Dade City commissioner for five years. In April, he won the election for mayor with the endorsement of the current mayor and 70 percent of the vote. Soon after, he was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club.
Van Gorden allegedly punished one teacher for rebuffing his advances by removing her from her classroom, and threatened two others. Many female teachers tried mightily to avoid Van Gorden, reports the Tampa Bay Times, one by turning the lights off in her classroom when she was working alone. Another teacher sought help for mental health issues, and others looked for different jobs.
"I made some inappropriate comments, inappropriate text messages. I made some inappropriate statements to female staff," the local ABC-TV affiliate, WFTS, reported Van Gorden as saying. "Besides my divorce, this was probably the most challenging thing I've ever had to deal with, and the most darkest time of my life."
But not everyone in the community agrees. The Tampa Bay Times called for his resignation in a Wednesday editorial, arguing that the mayor's primary function is as "the city ambassador," and "Van Gorden's uncouth behavior as principal will tarnish the city as well."
"Sadly, there is no humor in Van Gorden's lack of professionalism that humiliated female employees and left them fearful for their careers," it added.
The City Council and Chamber of Commerce are currently researching whether more can be done, reports Tampa Bay Online. The city attorney is investigating whether the charges against Van Gorden violate the city charter, and Vonnie Mikkelson, the executive director of the chamber, is assessing the circumstances with other community leaders.
But right now some in Zephyrhills still have good things to say about Van Gorden.
"I will say that Steve has been a consistent and reliable leader at the Chamber of Commerce," Mikkelson said, "and has not skipped a beat when it comes to serving the community in this particular leadership role."
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