By Rob Burgess
— Whatever Antoinette Tuff is being paid by DeKalb County School District, it’s nowhere near enough. On Aug. 20, the Lithonia, Ga. bookkeeper single-handedly prevented what easily could have ended as a ghastly school shooting.
Whilst suspect Michael Brandon Hill brought “an AK 47-style rifle and packed up nearly 500 rounds of ammunition — enough to shoot more than half the school’s students,” according to CBS News, Tuff’s weapon of choice was love. That and above-average people skills.
The 24-minute-long 911 recording of the incident is a roller coaster. The whole drama unfolded within earshot of the receiver of Tuff’s phone. The call began with an earful of the half-dozen shots which were fired in the front office of the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy.
“He said to tell them to back off,” Tuff told the dispatcher. “He doesn’t want the kids. He wants the police. … He said he doesn’t care if he dies. He said he’s not mentally stable.”
I’ve worked in customer service before, and I’m here to tell you she’s a master. As soon as she finished discovering the issue, she began to establish common ground.
“I can help you,” Tuff said to her assailant. “Do you want me to talk to them? OK, but let’s see if we can work it out so you don’t have to go away with them for a long time. … No, it does matter. I can let them know you’re not trying to harm [us] or anything. … It’s all going to be well, and they’re going to talk to the police.”
She then made a school-wide announcement at the behest of her captor.
“He wants to let everybody know that he’s sorry,” she said into the intercom. “He does not want to harm anybody. Everybody stay in place.”
Her bedside manner was astounding. After she negotiated the terms of the surrender, she continued to reassure the gunman.
“We’re not going to hate you, baby,” she said. “It’s a good thing that you’re giving up, so we’re not going to hate you.”
Even the dispatcher couldn’t hide her admiration.
“Ma’am, you’re doing a great job,” she said.
Tuff continued to build rapport.
“It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” Tuff said to the gunman. “I just want you to know that I love you, though. I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up, and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. … No, you don’t want that. You’re going to be OK. I thought the same thing. You know, I tried to commit suicide last year when my husband left me, but look at me now: I’m still working and everything is OK.”
After a few more tense moments of negotiation and brutal silence, a cacophony of deep-throated police voices barked orders in the background as the danger subsided.
“Let me tell you something, baby,” said Tuff to the dispatcher over the noise. “I ain’t never been so scared in all the days of my life.”
When WSB-TV’s Jovita Moore called Tuff a hero during an interview the next day, she refused the title. “I give it all to God,” said Tuff. “I’m not the hero. I was terrified.”
What’s important is Hill is now jailed and charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, making terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
After I listened to the emergency recording, I couldn’t help but remember what unfolded in the days after another similar story. A week after December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, broke the group’s silence. He called for armed educators and proclaimed: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
Hey, Wayne. Care to add a “sometimes” to the start of the sentence? Maybe it’s not the only thing. Cool it with the absolutes. A little bit of compassion can do the trick, too.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.