Fate of former Leesburg High employees' teaching licenses lies with Education Department

·9 min read

LEESBURG — The investigation into ethics complaints against former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder and former LHS guidance counselor Lenny Finelli isn't over yet.

In May, a police report as well as a Lake County School District investigation detailed allegations against the two.

A former student told investigators that Fielder was running a Christian-adjacent cult, recruiting students from his band program. The student, whom the Daily Commercial is not naming, also said that Fielder, despite being a mandatory reporter, hid sexual messages Finelli sent to him when he was a minor in school.

Former LHS band director Gabriel Fielder, left, stands with Anthony Wild, aka Anthony Kleppe, as he tells the Leesburg High School band students what this school means to him on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.
Former LHS band director Gabriel Fielder, left, stands with Anthony Wild, aka Anthony Kleppe, as he tells the Leesburg High School band students what this school means to him on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

'We trusted him': Former member of The Elder Council shares her experience in 'cult-like' group

The district's investigation and found that both had violated the Standards of Ethical Conduct and should be fired.

The Lake County School Board accepted their resignations in lieu of termination — Finelli's on April 25 and Fielder's on May 9.

The district then forwarded the investigation to the Florida Department of Education.

Now, the fate of their teaching licenses lie with the FLDOE.

The allegations against Finelli and Fielder

A Leesburg Police Department report released to the public in early May first detailed the accusations against Finelli and Fielder.

The student told investigators that in September 2020, he was involved with a secret society at LHS called "The Elder Council," a cult-like group lead by Fielder.

One night in September, Finelli texted the student, the report said.

Finelli, an LHS class of 2010 graduate, asked to meet up with him, and about "what his penis size was and about his sexual orientation," the report said.

The school district's report said Finelli also asked whether the student was sexually active, and what kind of porn he liked.

The two did not meet that night.

But the next day, Finelli told Fielder he and the student had been messaging. Fielder then spoke with both Finelli and the student and "said that they are no longer allowed to message each other and if they speak with each other, another member of their group has to be present during the conversation," the report said.

Fielder deleted all the text messages between the student and Finelli. He deleted them from iCloud, too. The school district report said Fielder smashed Finelli's phone.

"(The former student) said Gabriel demanded that neither one of them speak about the incident and demanded the remaining members of the group, to keep the incident a secret as well," the police report said.

A former member of the Elder Council confirmed this, and she provided screen shots to the Daily Commercial of a text she received from Fielder.

"Satan almost used Lenny and (former student) to fall and destroy themselves. They've both sinned and now are undergoing correction. Gabe was up late dealing with it all day," Fielder texted the former member, referring to himself in the third person.

After the student graduated, he and Finelli started a relationship that lasted about three months. He lived with Finelli from October to November 2021.

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The former Elder Council member shed more light on the group itself.

The Elder Council was officially formed in 2018 and disbanded in 2021. It was so-named because the members were to be considered "elders" to other churches.

In interviews with the Daily Commercial, she shared her experience in the group. She described, in detail, manipulation, brainwashing, emotional abuse and the trauma she continues to grapple with today.

She requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation, but the Commercial confirmed her identity. She said she wanted to share her story now to get justice for those who have been hurt by the Elder Council, as well as the actions of Fielder and Finelli.

Her allegations were disturbing. Among them:

  • She said the eight members, some of whom were minors, were required to tithe 10% of all of their earnings, whether it was from their paychecks or a tax return. Between 2019 and 2020, she tithed $1,976. The money went to a bank account set up for the Elder Council. The former member said they built a pole barn, installed sheds and tended a garden. This was considered "ministry work."

  • The end goal was a commune — eventually, each member would couple off and live together on the farm. Except Fielder, he would never marry. Before the cult was disbanded, Fielder had began calling himself the governor.

  • Fielder would lead the group in astral projection, a term used to describe an intentional out-of-body experience, telling the students it was "spirit travel."

  • Students were encouraged to hide details about the group from their parents. "'Don’t describe this like that because your parents aren’t open to all of this stuff yet,'" the former member said Fielder told her. "'They’re going to think we’re a cult.’"

  • She, too, had a relationship with Finelli. The two dated for seven months. She said she felt pressured to date him because the other members had already paired off. had known Finelli since she was 15. They dated when she was 19 and he was 29 — a nine-and-a-half-year age difference between them. She described Finelli as one of the most manipulative people she has ever met.

None of the Elder Council activities happened on school property, the district's investigation noted.

Ultimately, the district investigation found no evidence of a cult, though investigators did not interview anyone in the Elder Council but the former student who reported Fielder and Finelli. The former member provided the district with same screen shots the Daily Commercial received, and they were included in the investigation. But she was never contacted for an interview.

The investigation, however, did conclude that both Finelli and Fielder had violated the Standards of Ethical Conduct and should be fired.

They had already resigned. The board approved the HR items in consent agendas, which included requests from Fielder and Finelli to resign in lieu of termination.

Neither Fielder nor Finelli are facing criminal charges, and each denied the allegations in interviews with district investigators. Numerous calls to both went unanswered.

'The bottom line is that they're gone'

Leesburg High School Band director Gabriel Fielder, foreground right, jots notes as guest conductor Joe Kreines, a member of the Florida Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame, leads a band practice at LHS in 2014.
Leesburg High School Band director Gabriel Fielder, foreground right, jots notes as guest conductor Joe Kreines, a member of the Florida Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame, leads a band practice at LHS in 2014.

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Many questioned why the Lake County School Board allowed Fielder and Finelli to resign.

The district offered this statement:

"As a public entity, the district is not permitted to terminate an employee accused of wrongdoing until due process has been extended and an investigation completed. (An exception can be made for a newer employee on probationary status,)" a statement from the district says.

"In this case, the employees 'resigned in lieu of termination' prior to the completion of the district’s investigation. Termination without following the required due process can result in an appeal by the terminated employee, which could be unpredictable and costly."

The statement also noted that neither Finelli nor Fielder are facing criminal charges.

"The district cannot, and should not, treat employees as criminals when law enforcement has not said that a crime was committed," the statement said. "However, the district does hold employees accountable for inappropriate behavior. In this case, they are no longer employed with the district and cannot be rehired in this district in any capacity."

School board Chair Stephanie Luke and member Mollie Cunningham did not respond to multiple requests for comment. New school board member Tyler Brandeburg was not on the board when Fielder and Finelli resigned.

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Vice Chairman Marc Dodd told the Daily Commercial the school board "can only act on the recommendations from the superintendent."

He declined to give his opinion on the situation, saying: "It all comes back to the fact that I don’t have the ability to fire somebody which is something actually in the last year that I brought up in a school board workshop. And I did express some frustration that we as a board do not have that power."

"I support the district’s decision to forward the results of the investigation to the state, who will then review the matter and determine whether or not the sanctions of revocation of the certificate, of the teaching certificate, should take place," Dodd said.

Both Dodd and school board member Bill Mathias said they have been reading the Commercial's coverage of the situation.

Dodd said it has led to some "interesting conversations."

But neither said they would have changed their vote.

"It was an incident that happened three years ago," Mathias said. "It’s loose ends for me.”

“If there is a resignation there is no appeal," Mathias continued. "It’s 100% cleaner... The bottom line is that they're gone."

What's next?

The district has sent its report to the Florida Department of Education for review.

Cassie Palelis, FLDOE press secretary, responded to the Daily Commercial’s request for an update.

“… we can neither confirm nor deny that the Office of Professional Practices Services has a pending investigation regarding the referenced individuals,” she wrote in an email, citing Florida law.

She did, however, explain the multi-tiered process.

The Office of Professional Practice Services receives the initial complaint, reviews documents and decides whether to go forward for review.

If a case is opened, the educator, school or district is notified.

Investigators interview victims and witnesses, documents, and evidence. Once all the evidence is gathered, the educator can review the information, offer an explanation, rebuttal or present documents.

The case is then referred to the Practices Services attorney who decides if there is cause for action against the educator’s certificate. If the answer is yes, the case is then sent to the commissioner of education, who must decide if there is probable cause for disciplinary action.

A teacher’s license can be suspended or revoked.

“Sanctions against an educator’s certificate are issued by the Education Practices Commission, a separate entity from the Florida Department of Education,” Palelis said.

After probable cause is determined, the educator can appeal, surrender his or her certificate for permanent revocation, or reach a settlement agreement with the Department of Education. That agreement must be approved by the Education Practices Commission.

A teacher can take his case before an administrative law judge.

The teachers’ attorney, school, school district, and the Bureau of Educator Certification are then notified of the decision.

This article originally appeared on Daily Commercial: Leesburg High teacher 'cult': Florida DOE investigating employees