Former Zephyrhills principal admits, apologizes for 'unwanted advances and innuendos'

ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla - The former principal of Zephyrhills High School says his  divorce and being at a low point in his life are to blame for  him making multiple unwanted advances and sexual innuendos toward female co-workers.

Steve Van Gorden, 37, offered his resignation to the district Friday and they formally accepted it Tuesday. He had been employed by the school district since 1997.

"It was devastating," said Van Gorden of his decision to resign. "I have made a lot of mistakes. I went through a divorce in 2009 and I really haven't recovered from that on a personal level and I didn't confront it like I should have.  I made some inappropriate comments, inappropriate text messages and made some inappropriate statements to female staff and I'm really sorry."

A 346-page investigative file released by the Pasco County School Board alleges Van Gorden commented on subordinate employee's physical features, suggested to a subordinate that their advancement in the school system would depend on them having a non-working relationship with him and asked subordinates to assist him with 'stress relief.'

In one written complaint by a female co-worker, the woman stated that Van Gorden pressured her to give him 'alone time favors' and that Van Gorden became angry and sent angry text messages to her when she told him she had a boyfriend.

According to one female complainant, Van Gorden told her 'her boyfriend would never know and it will be a secret.'

The woman said Van Gorden approached her again at a school Casino Night and offered to help her finish her degree with leadership opportunities in exchange for 'alone time with sexual favors.'  She also claimed he was intoxicated.

Copies of text messages and Facebook messages included in the investigative file back up the woman's complaints.

In one Facebook message to this female co-worker Van Gorden wrote, "You and I have a special arrangement.  I will never jeopardize that or you.  I want you to be successful but you need to start listening to me."

Van Gorden then references 'alone time' again and asks, "we are still moving forward when health allows with the arrangement we have correct?"

When the woman responds that  they will need to review school material on a specific date, Van Gorden then writes, "So, is there time that day for some other activities?"

When ABC Action News asked Van Gorden about these messages and innuendos, he said, "I was at a bad place in my life and not handling my divorce the way I should have."

Within the file, there are also photographs of the woman's iPhone showing multiple calls placed to her by Van Gorden.

"I thought these people were friends.  When you are the boss and they are subordinates, it is a fine line and I made a mistake," explained Van Gorden.

Another female teacher also lodged complaints against Van Gorden. In a letter dated October 1, 2012, the woman told school board members how Van Gorden consistently made comments about her clothing and was occasionally asked by a third party if she was single because Van Gorden was interested in dating her.

This teacher also alleged Van Gorden led a group of male teachers in a "ranking" of female staff with one criteria being a woman's breast size.

The teacher told the board she was left feeling humiliated, uncomfortable and ultimately wanted to leave the school.

Complaints against Van Gorden go back to 2010.

He told ABC Action News "there are two sides to every story" and claimed he was dating one of the women who accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Van Gorden also said he is not embarrassed by this material becoming public and said he is receiving a lot of support on Facebook, from faculty within the school and from friends.

In the investigative file, there were letters written to the school board on Van Gorden's behalf.  One letter says, "He is the strongest of all the principals we have here at Zephryhills High School.  He is our school spirit.  Without him, moral is way down."

Another parent wrote that Van Gorden is "a valued asset who needs to return to his rightful place as principal."

Van Gorden, a father of two, said he hopes the women will forgive him. 

Van Gorden, who was elected Mayor of Zephyrhills in April, told ABC Action News he has no plans to leave office.

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