Former principal's next lesson is jail

His sentence is limited, though, to the time he takes to complete a drug program.

Published June 13, 2007

TAMPA -- Anthony Giancola's career imploded in a highly public display in February after the Van Buren Middle School principal had an undercover officer deliver crack cocaine to him in his school office.

After his arrest, the veteran educator apologized briefly before television cameras, turned in his school credentials and keys, then stayed quiet as shocked students and faculty waited for his criminal case to play out.

On Tuesday, the wait -- and Giancola's silence -- ended.

Inside the courthouse, a judge accepted a plea agreement that allows Giancola, 40, to turn himself in to jail by June 30 and serve only the time it takes him to complete an in-house drug treatment program. He must forfeit his teaching certificate.

Outside, Giancola stood before the cameras and made a plea to those he let down.

"I made the worst decision that I possibly could have made," he said. "I ran from my problems rather than dealing with them head-on.

"Look at what's happened to me, and don't let it ever happen to you."

The day marked the reconciling of Giancola's two personas, the educator and the drug addict.

A graduate of Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport and the University of South Florida, he began teaching at Young Middle School in 1991. Jovial and dedicated, he found his niche in special education classes. He taught students with disabilities at Jefferson High and was named head of the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center in 2004.

He became principal of Van Buren last year.

"Mr. G" knew students by name and earned the respect of community leaders and the school staff. More than one employee called him "the best boss I've ever had."

Some teachers said Giancola was visibly stressed because of weight problems, and financial and marital troubles. He kept his drug addiction hidden.

A confidential informant alerted Tampa police in early February that Giancola was "using large amounts of rock cocaine daily," police reports indicate. Authorities set up an undercover drug buy.

Giancola asked the dealer to bring him $200 worth of cocaine to his office at school. The undercover officer expressed concern about the location.

"I make $90,000 a year, " the principal told him by cell phone. "Trust me, my office is safe."

Giancola ended up short on cash. A half-hour before school let out for the day on Feb. 22, he bought two pieces of rock cocaine from the undercover officer for $20. He asked the officer and confidential informant if they wanted to "hit it" in his office, the police report said.

Officers escorted him off school grounds in handcuffs.

Police found 7 grams of marijuana and two glass pipes with trace amounts of cocaine in his car. Giancola told them that he tried crack for the first time in December and quickly became addicted.

Giancola arrived in court Tuesday looking trimmer and clean-cut in his dark pinstripe suit. He pleaded guilty to purchase of cocaine, possession of cocaine and possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis.

Circuit Judge Wayne Timmerman sentenced him to 364 days in jail. The sentence will be suspended after Giancola finishes an eight- to nine-week drug program that likely will begin in late July.

He must serve three years of probation, which will include a drug and alcohol evaluation, random urine screenings and 200 hours of community service.

The maximum sentence for the charges could have been 21 years in prison. Giancola's attorney, James Mancuso, lobbied for a sentence without jail time for the first-time offender. Prosecutors wouldn't budge.

"The Legislature has made it clear that schools should be drug-free zones," said prosecutor Michael Sinacore. "A principal is expected to protect students. Instead of doing that, principal Giancola invited drugs and crime on campus."

The former principal, accompanied at the hearing by his sister but not his wife, didn't elaborate on what problems drove his addiction. He said only that he turned to drugs instead of dealing with them constructively.

"The person I was really trying to hurt was myself, and I thought I was only hurting myself," he told reporters. "But I came to find out that I really hurt a lot of people that mean the world to me."

He said he had lost everything -- home, job, money and good name.

He pledged to live out the lessons he preached to students during his 16 1/2 year career. "Accept responsibility for your actions, deal with the consequences in a respectful manner and then move on and don't make the same mistakes again.

"So I'm going to look at today as an opportunity to walk the walk, not just talk the talk," he said, then walked away from the courthouse and the cameras, a free man for a few more weeks.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.