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Student praised for exemplary act

The fourth-grader is recognized for alerting authorities to a loaded handgun at school.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Under the glare of a television camera that beamed his nervous face to every classroom at West Zephyrhills Elementary, a shy Tommy "T.J." Cooner Jr. accepted awards and high praise Tuesday afternoon from his principal and the city's police chief.

"In today's world, we never know when we're going to be presented with a situation where we have to make the right decision," principal Madonna Wise told the school's 780 students via closed circuit television. "We're just as proud as we can be to recognize Tommy."

A week ago, after learning that a fifth-grade student had brought a loaded .357-caliber Magnum to school, Tommy approached his teacher during a fire drill and told her he had seen the weapon. The teacher, Becky Bishop, walked back into the school and found the gun in the fifth-grader's duffle bag.

"There has been an example set for you that you need to follow," Zephyrhills police Chief Robert Howell said as he stared into the television camera. Because of Tommy's quick thinking, he said, "Everybody got away safely and everything worked out fine."

Then Howell turned toward Tommy and presented the fourth-grader with a citizen appreciation award and a $50 savings bond. When the chief handed Tommy a $10 McDonald's gift certificate, the shy 10-year-old finally cracked a smile.

Afterward, Tommy, whose nickname at home is "the All-American kid," stood silently as his parents and the local media gathered around him. When a reporter asked what made him decide to report the gun to his teacher, Tommy just shrugged.

His proud parents were eager to talk about their son.

"He really did something special," said his father, Tommy Cooner. If his son hadn't told his teacher about the gun, he said, "We might be here mourning instead of presenting an award."

The fifth-grader accused of bringing the loaded gun onto the campus was arrested and charged with possession of a weapon on school grounds. Police said he intended no harm and was only trying to impress friends.

The Times is withholding the 11-year-old boy's name because of his age.

The student obtained the weapon from his father, police said. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is investigating whether to file charges against the father for giving a minor access to a loaded firearm.

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