A model educator before fall

The Van Buren principal resigns, a day after being arrested on crack cocaine charges.

By Letitia Stein
Published February 24, 2007

TAMPA - Superlatives peppered Anthony Giancola's evaluations as he worked his way up to the top job at Van Buren Middle School.

He lifted morale and helped expand Kids and Canines, a program that has truant middle school teens train dogs to assist people with disabilities.

At 40, he had the admiration of educators and community leaders across Hillsborough.

But he was spiralling out of control.

He was the principal who, police say, wanted to smoke $20 of crack cocaine as soon as he purchased it from an undercover officer in his school office. Giancola's resignation Friday in the midst of an ongoing police investigation left many people puzzling over a scandal that seemed wholly out of character.

"I cried for him," said Bob Conigliaro, vice president of community relations for Caspers Company, who worked with Giancola on the advisory board of Kids and Canines. "As grossly negligent as the charges are, they don't define the person."

He saw no hint of the demons Giancola may have been battling when they briefly spoke earlier this month at the district's Teacher of the Year awards.

Giancola told police that he first tried crack in December to escape personal problems. He became hooked, smoking hundreds of dollars worth daily.

Teachers who worked with him said Giancola was visibly under stress, struggling with weight problems and marital difficulties.

Friends found it true to form that he didn't shy away from disgrace, not even when news crews caught up with him outside the Orient Road Jail, where he was released on $10,000 bond.

"I know I've disappointed a lot of people," Giancola told the cameras. "I need to get my life together. And then maybe from that, other people will learn not to make the mistakes I've made."

Experts say a crack cocaine addiction is akin to hijacking a brain. Once the addiction takes hold, it overrules judgment.

"People would say, 'Oh, my God, How can he expose the kids?' " said Scott Teitelbaum, a University of Florida professor and medical director of the Florida Recovery Center. "That is classic behavior for a cocaine addiction in the level of desperation to do whatever it takes to get the next hit."

Among drugs, only tobacco is more addictive, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since crack cocaine is smoked, it enters the brain as fast as if shot into a vein. While the initial highs are euphoric, many addicts waste fortunes chasing an elusive repeat.

Teitelbaum, who described himself as former cocaine user in his 11th year of recovery, said professionals who have the money to support a drug habit often fall the fastest. "Maybe they have more to lose, so they go down hard," he said.

Many found Giancola's arrest shocking. He has been charged with purchasing cocaine, possessing cocaine, and a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana. He was released Thursday.

Giancola had a way with people, especially the emotionally disturbed children he dealt with, who are often distrustful of adults.

"Street smart kids know within seconds whether or not a person is sincere," said Anne Chatfield, director of non-traditional programs in Hillsborough. "When you genuinely care and are sincere, people respond to that."

He helped to lift morale and forge community partnerships at the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center, a school for students with emotional disabilities. Giancola supervised the center before moving this summer to Van Buren.

"You won't find anyone on this campus who has any negatives to say about Tony," said Jennifer Wise, director of Kids and Canines program at the center.

When his face flashed across his television, Daniel Riveiro cringed. He had hired Giancola to oversee the special education programs when he was principal at Jefferson High.

"It's a shame that this took place, because he'll tell you the truth," Riveiro said. "He's that type of person. That's what he taught his kids."

Lesser problems had shadowed Giancola's career before. During his time at Jefferson, he took a three-month leave of absence for health reasons.

Riveiro said Giancola's weight problem became so severe that his shoes stuck to swollen feet at the end of the day. At the time, he managed to shed many pounds, but weight remained a struggle.

His jail booking record lists Giancola's weight at 300 pounds on a 5-foot-7-inch frame.

In the past, finances had plagued him, too. Records show Giancola filed for bankruptcy in federal court on Christmas Eve 1990. Among those he owed money: Multiple credit card companies and the Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union.

The case finally was resolved in late 1993, though no further details were available Friday.

Still, students at Van Buren knew little about the private life of the principal they called "Mr. G." In morning announcement Friday, they were told the police were doing their job. Students needed to focus on school.

"The only thing he said to reporters yesterday was that he was sorry," assistant principal Allison Edgecomb told students. "I believe he was talking to all of us here at Van Buren when he said that."

Outside his St. Petersburg home Friday, Giancola wasn't ready to provide more. His family declined comment.

Times Staff Writer Cristina Silva and researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at 226-3400.