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Principal contrite after drug sentence 'I let a lot of people down,' Cannata says

A former elementary school principal from Grand Island issued a public apology Wednesday after he was sentenced to two years of probation for possession of user amounts of Ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine.

Frank A. Cannata, 41, said he realizes his conduct hurt his family, his friends, his co-workers, members of his church and, especially, impressionable young students at Charlotte Sidway Elementary School.

"I know I let a lot of people down, and for that, I am truly sorry," Cannata told The Buffalo News after his sentencing in U.S. District Court.

"At my worst point, I was using crystal meth about twice a week, a little bump to keep me going after I got home from work. I thought I had it under control, but I didn't."

Federal agents arrested Cannata at his Buffalo apartment in December, during a roundup of 30 suspects allegedly involved with Ecstasy and other drugs that are prevalent in local nightclubs. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Clare Kane said authorities suspected Cannata of being only a drug user, not a dealer.

The arrest for misdemeanor drug possession shocked residents of Grand Island, where Cannata was widely respected as a principal and also as music director at St. Stephen's Catholic Church. He was suspended without pay from his $97,000-a-year school job and was placed on leave from his duties at the church.

After the arrest, authorities disclosed that Cannata had previous convictions for driving while intoxicated and driving while impaired and that he was facing charges of domestic violence for allegedly striking his 11-year-old son.

Ultimately, his arrest on the federal charges might have saved his life, Cannata said.

"I hope people will look at my case and see that if they're using drugs, or if they're associating with people who use drugs, they're on a path to destruction," he said.

Cannata caught a break from Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr., who could have sent him to prison for a year under advisory sentencing guidelines. The judge said that he seriously considered giving Cannata prison time but decided that two years' probation -- with strictly enforced drug counseling and drug testing -- would be more appropriate.

"You were a role model," the judge said. "When the children see what their role model has done, . . . what does that do to them?"

In the interview, Cannata said he worries about the same thing. He said he would be willing to speak to youth groups about his experiences and the perils of drug use.

"The public has no idea how many people in the community are using crystal meth these days," Cannata said. "I've met lawyers, accountants and other professional people who have used it to stretch their days."

Cannata said he never used the drug while working at the school, while he was with his son, or at church.

He said he asked Bishop Edward U. Kmiec to allow him to return to his musical duties at St. Stephen's, where he was the organist and music director for 20 years before his arrest.

"He remains on leave, and his employment status will be determined at a future date," said Kevin A. Keenan, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

Cannata, a native of Grand Island, said he doubts he could ever be reinstated to his job at Sidway Elementary, but he would not rule out the possibility that he may someday seek a return to the education field, either as a teacher or an administrator.

"For now, I'm hoping they will reinstate me at St. Stephen's, and I plan to teach some piano students," he said. "I've also been playing piano for patients at [Roswell Park Cancer Institute], and I . . . plan to continue doing that."

Cannata remains an unpaid employee on suspension, and he is not currently licensed to practice as a school administrator in New York State, said David A. Farmelo, attorney for the Grand Island School District.

Roy J. Carlisi Jr., Cannata's attorney in the federal case, said the probation was appropriate. Carlisi said he realizes that prosecutors had to pursue the case after learning that a local principal was involved with drugs.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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