Principal held in drug buy

Police say an undercover officer sold the man crack in his Hillsborough school office.

By Justin George and Letitia Stein
Published February 23, 2007

TAMPA - The principal specifically asked the drug dealer to sell him crack cocaine in his middle school office.

The dealer had reservations. But the principal insisted, so the dealer walked in at 3:30 p.m. Thursday - a half-hour before Van Buren Middle School let out.

In the office, where stuffed bulldogs sit on a shelf and degrees hang on a wall, principal Anthony Giancola paid the man $20 for crack. He said he "wanted to hit it right then and there," Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

The dealer, an undercover officer, dissuaded him from lighting up, and Giancola walked him out into the lobby, where the trap was sprung. Police officers disguised as parents registering their children arrested him and swept him into a police car.

To many, it was a shocking free fall for a man many look up to. Giancola, who has a clean criminal record in Florida, told police that addiction had gripped him suddenly and recently, brought on by personal problems he was looking to escape from.

School officials believe he will resign.

Police tried to disrupt the school day as little as possible, McElroy said. But the arresting officers couldn't hide Giancola from seventh-grader Courtney O'Neal, who saw the man many call "Mr. G" sitting in the back of the police car.

"That's our principal," she recalled saying in disbelief. "That's Mr. Giancola."

* * *

A graduate of Boca Ciega High School in Pinellas County, Giancola wrote that he chose teaching as a profession because "I enjoy working with young people," according to his Hillsborough County job application.

He felt most comfortable with middle school students in special education classes and began teaching in 1991 at Young Middle School. He worked with students with disabilities at Jefferson High, and was named head of the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center in 2004.

Over and over, job evaluations called him "outstanding."

"There are not many individuals better prepared to assume an administrative role," wrote David Toward, then an assistant principal at Young.

This summer, Giancola, 40, was named principal of Van Buren, a campus in a working class neighborhood near Busch Gardens with 850 students that promotes a vision to create a "safe and caring environment."

In no time, "Mr. G" made an impression.

He held pep rallies. He knew students by name. Some students called him "G-Dawg."

Thursday, as news of Giancola's arrest spread through the halls, disbelief came with it.

"That ain't him," said eighth-grader Chris Simeans, 15, student assistant to the principal. "I know that for sure."

* * *

Teachers who have worked with Giancola said they have noticed him stressed, battling a weight problem and divorce proceedings.

He lives in a modest one-story home on bustling Tyrone Boulevard in St. Petersburg. A sign hanging near the front door reads "Tony and Andi live here" while another warns that a spoiled pit bullterrier and mastiff call this house home.

McElroy said Giancola is married. A woman who answered the door declined to comment.

"He seemed like a really nice guy," neighbor Junior Patterson said. "They didn't have cars coming and going or anything bad like that."

Giancola told police he tried crack for the first time in December, McElroy said. It hooked him, and he smoked several hundred dollars' worth since each day, McElroy said.

He told police he took off five days to try to clean up. Thursday was his first day back at school after a five-day absence, schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.

"I support him, and I'm shocked," said Gene Rodriguez, a Van Buren physical education teacher. "Anything I can do to help him, I'm there. I'm just in total shock right now."

Giancola faces charges of cocaine possession, possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis and soliciting to purchase cocaine on school property. The location of the crime adds an additional three years to a sentence if he is found guilty.

With television cameras rolling and a news helicopter above, police walked the principal, a short man with a goatee and plain gray suit, out of a police station and into a squad car.

"I'm very sorry," Giancola said when asked what he would say to students and the school.

Then he slumped in the back seat of the car, which carried him to jail. He remained there Thursday night in lieu of $10,000 bail.

* * *

A tipster set up Giancola's arrest, informing police about his drug problems. Police asked the person, who is not related to Van Buren Middle School, to put the principal in touch with the undercover officer.

Giancola first called the man he thought was a dealer earlier this week. He ordered $200 of crack cocaine, which he wanted delivered at the school at 7:30 p.m. But Thursday, the day of the deal, he called back, saying a 6:45 p.m. appointment had come up.

Come by around 4 p.m., but only bring $20 worth of crack, he told the dealer, according to McElroy.

The undercover officer had misgivings. He didn't want to deal drugs while school was in.

But Giancola said it was fine. He would make sure no kids were around his office, McElroy said.

"I feel safe here," McElroy said Giancola told the undercover officer. "This is where I feel secure."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Cristina Silva and Kevin Graham contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:


Anthony Giancola's career in Hillsborough

1991: Began teaching at Young Middle School

1994: Promoted to Exceptional Student Education specialist at Young Middle School

1997: Transferred to ESE specialist position at Jefferson High School

1999: Appointed coordinator at James Exceptional Center

2004: Appointed site administrator at Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center

2006: Appointed principal of Van Buren Middle School