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Deltona Elementary School mourns slain trooper


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 1998

SPRING HILL -- Like a stone that falls into the water, one person's deeds can cause ripples far away.

Consider Deltona Elementary School in Spring Hill and the death of James Bradley Crooks, the Florida Highway Patrol trooper who was shot to death Tuesday by a killer on the run.

Known to the kids as "Trooper Brad," Crooks was the fiance of popular second-grade teacher Nadine LaMonte. Engaged to be married in November, friends said they seemed like the perfect couple.

LaMonte, 25, and a first-year teacher, often talked about Crooks in the glowing terms of a giddy bride-to-be.

"She bragged about him a lot. She was real proud of him," school psychologist Mary-Grace Surrena said.

Crooks, 23, was just as enthusiastic about his future wife. And he -- along with his trooper's uniform -- became familiar sights at the school.

Crooks performed little jobs, such as helping LaMonte set up science fair booths. And he handled larger tasks, like spending time one-on-one with kids who needed it. He also talked about life as a trooper.

"He seemed to be someone who was genuinely interested in people and working with people," assistant principal Alice Black said.

When a patrol spokesman with a trembling voice appeared on TV and named James Crooks as the dead trooper, some Deltona students immediately recognized the name as Trooper Brad, principal Janet Dunleavy said.

Others, like Diane Zodda's 9-year-old daughter, didn't realize it until she got to school Wednesday morning. "You don't feel safe anymore," Zodda said. Her daughter had come home from school crying.

The ripple was such that a team of seven counselors was brought into Deltona on Wednesday morning to try to help kids cope with the news. LaMonte wasn't at school. But her class spent an hour asking questions and seeking reassurance about safety.

Counselors answered as best they could the questions about death and dying. And they tried to explain what it means to be a police officer, and the sacrifice it sometimes requires.

To aid the grieving process, the kids began crafting sympathy cards for LaMonte. Counselors tried to ensure the messages emphasized the kids' concern for their teacher without dwelling on the death of a good man.

School administrators hoped that, once again, youth would prove resilient.

"I think they'll bounce back pretty quickly," Black said.

Keeping things as close to routine as possible seemed to help. And, considering how a horrific tragedy had crossed the school's threshold, they seemed to do okay.

It was the teachers and administrators who seemed to suffer most, especially those who had shared in the discussions about LaMonte's wedding plans.

But Dunleavy had given her staff a simple order: Cry if you must, but try not to break down in front of the kids. Being strong is important to restoring their sense that there's order in the world.

Still, the adults could barely conceal their grief. Those holding it together admitted they were acting, said Surrena, the counselor.

A few lost their grip when a group of high school students came by -- they'd been scheduled to perform long before Tuesday's tragedy -- and sang a show tune with the wistful phrase "last kiss forever."

Dunleavy listened to teachers cry in her office, and she heard parents cry on the phone. But she wouldn't allow herself. She had to be the rock. Her faith in God -- and a strong husband -- helped her through, she said.

But Dunleavy's greatest suffering had already come the night before, when LaMonte called to say that her fiance was dead.

"I told her I loved her," Dunleavy said. "I don't know what else you say."

Their conversation was another testimony to the dedication of a teacher.

Dunleavy said LaMonte asked, "What about my class?"

She told her not to worry, but to try to come back to school as soon after the funeral as possible. Waiting longer could make it harder for the teacher and the school, Dunleavy reasoned.

When LaMonte does return, Deltona will have a public memorial service on school grounds. That's where it belongs, Dunleavy said. Trooper Brad was "part of our family.

"It should be at home where we are."

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