A retired Lewiston-Porter teacher, charged with snorting cocaine from a pen cap in front of students while working as a substitute teacher, accepted a plea deal Wednesday in Lewiston Town Court.
Joan M. Donatelli, 59, of Lewiston, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree in front of Town Justice Thomas J. Sheeran. Two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and more severe criminal possession charges were dropped in the plea deal, which was offered by the Niagara County district attorney's office.
Donatelli had been charged Feb. 1 after two fourth-grade girls, who were sitting near her desk, said they saw her using a pen cap to snort cocaine from a plastic bag at her desk.
Lewiston police Sgt. Frank Previte said the girls "knew what they were seeing" and recognized the actions of snorting cocaine with a pen cap from something they had seen watching the television show "Cops."
After being confronted by the school principal, Donatelli told police she had flushed the cocaine down a school toilet. Later, at her home, she turned over the empty baggie and cap to police. Both tested positive for traces of cocaine, Lewiston police said.
Donatelli admitted Wednesday that all the negative media coverage has been very hard for her to deal with. Her attorney, Angelo A. DiMillo, said his client immediately began seeking treatment for her addiction problem after the arrest.
"There is an addiction issue that is being dealt with, that much we can admit," DiMillo told The Buffalo News prior to accepting the plea deal.
He said Wednesday night, "Joan has been receiving support from friends and family and is coping [with the arrest] very effectively by getting help."
He said no sentencing date has been set and the case is being studied by probation officers. He said Donatelli could receive a maximum sentence of 60 days for the misdemeanor charge.
"The sentencing will be up to the judge," DiMillo said. "There was no commitment made to a sentence. That will be up to the court's discretion."
In defense of Donatelli's reputation, he said, "She was a very popular teacher for 33 years and is a good and caring person. That's something you don't hear. She gave 33 years to teaching because she loved it. You don't do it for the money. People have been very supportive."
Donatelli taught first grade at Lewiston-Porter from 1969 to 2003 and served for a time as first-grade department chairwoman.
Her attorney said she won't lose her pension due to the charges because she was already retired from the system and had been substituting at the time of her arrest. However, he said that going back to substitute teaching is just "not in the cards" anymore.
Lewiston-Porter interim Superintendent Don W. Rappold said Donatelli has been banned from the school's campus.