In the past year or so, we’ve had more than a few opportunities to point to acts of utter selflessness and bravery among school employees—from the Newtown, Conn., educators who shielded their students from bullets to the Moore, Okla., teachers who sheltered students during deadly tornadoes. And here’s one more.
According to multiple reports, Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at an elementary school near Atlanta, prevented what was likely to have been a mass school shooting by convincing the gunman to surrender.
On Aug. 20, 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition. He walked into the office where Tuff, who was relieving a secretary, was sitting, reports Atlanta’s WSBTV.
“He was going to end his life and take all the cops and everybody with him,” Tuff told the news station. “He said that he didn’t have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die today.”
At one point, Hill exchanged gunfire with police and fired one round in the school, but no one was injured. “He actually tried to go out the door where the kids was and I called him back and kept talking to him to keep him calm, to stay inside with me,” Tuff said to WSBTV. “Because I knew that if he got outside that he was going to start shooting the kids.”
In a very tense 14-minute 911 call, which CNN released (see below), Tuff can be heard talking Hill down, telling him that he hadn’t hurt anyone and that everything was going to be OK. He tells her that he is mentally unstable and should have gone to the hospital. With astonishing composure throughout, Tuff follows his directions and explains to him that she has been through hard times, too—that she had contemplated suicide when her husband left her after 33 years and that she has a son with multiple disabilities. She assures him that, like her, he can still live a good life.
Eventually, she convinces him to put the gun down, take everything out of his pockets, and lay on the floor so that the police can enter.
Just before the police come in, Tuff is heard saying: “It’s going to be alright, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you though, O.K. And I’m proud of you—that’s a good thing that you did giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”
The way in which the events unfolded could serve as a poignant case study as schools develop their own plans for handling threats to school safety. Tuff’s actions—a staggering display of courage, compassion, and understanding of human behavior—are arguably antithetical to several states’ efforts to arm teachers.
Yesterday, Antoinette Tuff met her partner in grace under fire—Kendra McCray, the 911 dispatcher who was on the line with her while the gunman was in the office. In a teary greeting, Tuff hugged McCray and said, “We made it!”
In the CNN interview, McCray called Tuff a “true hero” and said “she missed her calling—she should have been a counselor or something.” Turning to Tuff, she said, “You so did great. I’ve never had a call where the caller was so calm and so confident ... and so personable.”
And that wasn’t the only exciting encounter for Tuff yesterday: She also received a phone call from President Barack Obama. In a separate CNN interview, Obama said about Tuff:
She was remarkable. I talked to her today, because when I heard the 911 call and, you know, read the sequence of events, I thought here is somebody who is not just courage and not just cool under pressure, but also had enough heart that somehow that she could convince somebody that was really troubled that she cared about him. And I told her, I said that not only did she Michelle and me proud but she probably saved a lot of lives, including the life of the potential perpetrator. ... I think we might have to have her, uh, maybe make a visit to the White House.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.