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LEESBURG — The dust may be settling on the scandal at Leesburg High that forced two teachers to resign this spring amid allegations of improper behavior with students — at least, Lake County school officials hope so.
But it leaves everyone — including former administrators — scratching their heads and wondering how things got so far out of hand.
The school’s former band director, Gabriel Fielder, and guidance counselor Lenny Finelli, now face ethics charges before the state Department of Education. Finelli was accused of trying to groom a student for sex, and Fielder reportedly failed to tell authorities — all within the context of heading an off-campus “cult-like” religious group, as students have described it.
Investigation continues at state level: Fate of former Leesburg High employees' teaching licenses lies with Education Department
'Don’t try to cover up anything ugly'
Before classes begin on Aug. 10, teachers, both new and veteran alike, will be meeting with their principals to make plans for the new school year, to encourage each other, and to remind each other of potential pitfalls.
There will be cautionary tales, including perhaps what happened at Leesburg High.
One of the tips from now retired Principal Ted Wolf was: “Always be aware of protecting yourself.”
Wolf, who has been retired as principal of Villages Elementary of Lady Lake for 12 years, said his office did not have a window when he started, so one of the first things he did was to call the county to get one.
It’s not that he wanted to see out, it was so everyone could see in.
“It was safety for everyone’s sake,” he said.
Now, it is more important than ever.
“People are so vulnerable,” Wolf said.
Teachers were always instructed to keep their hands off students, especially in anger.
“They could always call administrators for assistance,” he said.
“Be careful what you write,” Wolf also cautioned, but document everything when building a case, leaving emotion out of it.
“Don’t try to cover up anything ugly,” Wolf said.
That’s one of the major strikes against Fielder, who allegedly destroyed Finelli’s phone and digital messages to the student he was reportedly trying to entice.
Gabriel Fielder resigns: School board accepts resignation of Leesburg band director amid accusations he ran cult
'Students mimic adults'
Wolf, who retired after 38 years in the system, spent many years toiling in middle schools, which he acknowledges is different than a large high school. That, and the fact that things have changed so dramatically in society, practically makes his head spin.
“Everyone is getting this feeling of open defiance,” he said. “They believe they have the right to do or say anything they want.”
The rules are written, but they say, “I’m not going to do that.”
It’s not just the kids.
“Students mimic adults,” Wolf said. “People are not level-headed. You can’t discuss anything.”
One thing that teachers should not do is try to impose their personal views on children, Wolf said. That is where Fielder and Finelli began getting into trouble with the formation of the Elder Council, a self-described evangelical nonprofit organization that met off campus.
Wolf was always a believer in listening to students and talking it out when it came to disruptive behavior, including explaining that actions have consequences.
Teachers are there to teach, but they can also listen if the student comes to them with a problem. Sometimes that results in getting in touch with another professional to help them.
Unfortunately, some kids are raising themselves.
“I feel for the single parents, having to raise kids and not having enough time for them,” he said.
Of course, some parents are so concerned about wanting a life for themselves they ignore the child, he noted.
'Religion gone bad': What makes a cult, a cult? Was the Elder Council one?
When social media comes into play
Social media has also had a dramatic impact.
“How many children today have cellphones? I’ll bet 60 to 70 percent do in middle school, if not more," he said.
Some elementary students have them, too, especially in the fourth grade and up.
Sometimes social media has a direct, negative impact on students.
Some students have gotten into trouble engaging in challenges posted on TikTok, like destroying toilets and sinks in school restrooms. Others have gotten into trouble on other sites by posting sexually explicit, hateful, or threatening material.
The best teachers are those who care about the students while earning respect and maintaining the proper boundaries.
Wolf was known for those traits.
This article originally appeared on Daily Commercial: Retired Villages Elementary principal weighs in on LHS band incident