School Climate & Safety Opinion

She Called Him ‘Sweetheart’

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 25, 2013 4 min read
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Antoinette Tuff’s actions at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Georgia were inarguably courageous. They were also inspired by her faith and her own experience with loss and despair. Without either one, she might not have reached that disturbed young man. Most agree, given his AK 47 and 500 rounds of ammunition, that she prevented what could have been another Sandy Hook tragedy. For everyone at the Academy, she was certainly the right person at the right moment. Her decision to engage was spontaneous and remarkable; her actions were brave; her intuition and skill diffused a potential tragedy. No lives were lost, though many may be changed. What she succeeded at doing is nothing short of heroic. We want to highlight her source for heroism because it holds a lesson.

She was calm and reassuring as she told him “It’s going to be alright sweetheart.” Antoinette Tuff opened her heart to Michael Brandon Hill, the 20 year old, heavily armed man with a mental health problem who was off his medications. She did not know him. Her capacity to move to love made all the difference. Because her words were recorded, we have the opportunity to listen to her over and over again. In this extreme situation, involving not only her life or death, but that of hundreds of children and their teachers, administrators and staff, Antoinette did something that worked. Just last month Michael Brandon Hill had received a sentence of three years of probation and an order to attend an anger management program because of a death threat to his brother. Here he was, only a few weeks later, with a history of mental health issues, arriving at school with the intention to kill others and himself. Yet, he was not unreachable. He is not evil; he has an illness needing treatment.

Luckily, we still live in a country in which life and death are not an everyday issue in our schools. What is an everyday occurrence in our schools is the attendance of children who need to receive the type of attention Antoinette Tuff demonstrated.

  • Her communication was filled with abundant honest, open, unbiased, flowing love.
  • She accepted who he was, the choices he had made, the gun he was ready to shoot. An AK47 is a very frightening weapon if you have never seen what it looks like and what one can do.
  • She accepted his intentions.
  • She remained outwardly calm and focused on letting him know she would keep him safe by protecting him from harm if he would surrender.
  • She kept forgiving him and at the end she even told him she loved him. It seems trivial to say but every day we are called to practice similarly, forgiving yesterday and loving those who others might not.

    Antoinette later revealed her strength came from her commitment to her religion and its practice. In this case, it was surely good that God was present in school, in Antoinette’s being. But open heartedness is achieved in many ways. Perhaps the act that Antoinette took that was so successful was her capacity to truly see Michael, filled with pain, confusion and maybe anger. She gave him her attention and repeated his words back to him so he knew he was being heard. We can all do those things.

    What difference could we make if we built our schools around those principles of her actions? Love cannot be a word only; it must be an action. In schools where we strive to create cultures that embrace everyone, the word love must transform from a noun to a verb. Antoinette took time, even under that extreme situation, to listen and reflect back what this distraught young man was thinking, feeling, and saying and did so without judgment. It made a world of difference. He laid the gun down, emptied his pockets, stretched out on the floor.

    As we shortcut through our days, do we even think about whether we are giving message of uncaring? Do we even pause to think who needs us today, who needs to be truly seen and not dismissed? These distressed young people who end up with guns in their hands or those who beat a veteran to death in a Spokane parking lot, came through our schools. Our schools are filled with children who have mental health needs. We cannot let the systems of education and mental health fail them. The costs are way too high. Who among us does not need to be heard, encouraged, and accepted? All children in our schools can benefit from an environment in which the actions of Antoinette Tuff become the rule, not the exception.

    Let us take a clear lesson from Antoinette Tuff. We cannot give up. Even in that crisis, she slowly and clearly spoke Michael’s words back to him, assured him of his safety, accepted him as he was in that terrifying moment, and created the safe environment everyone needed. That is model behavior for us in our schools. That is a lesson we all can take from Antoinette Tuff’s actions. For individual children, we can all be heroes, behaving like she did. We might be unsung, but so was Antoinette until two days ago. This is not solely a lesson in school safety. It is a lesson in human interaction. Heroic actions come from the heart. Love is transformative.

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