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School employee calms gunman down at shooting

8:41 AM, Aug 21, 2013   |    comments
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Photo from WXIA - TV

DECATUR, Ga. (USA TODAY/WXIA) - Atlanta-area residents were breathing a sigh of relief Wednesday while authorities were trying to determine why a man fired shots inside an elementary school on Tuesday.

Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, was being credited with calming the gunman down and convincing him to surrender. She told ABC on Wednesday that the suspect, Michael Brandon Hill, told her he had recently stopped taking medication. She said he added that he was going to die -- along with police officers.

Hill, 20, was in custody, accused of of firing at least a half dozen shots with an assault rifle in the elementary school in a confrontation that forced the evacuation of 800 or more students and prompted police to return fire.

Investigator T.L. Wortham of the DeKalb County Sheriff's Fugitive Unit told WSB-TV that as officers were apprehending the suspect, he said, "I'm sorry, I'm off my meds." Several weapons were seized, Wortham said.

No one was injured at the academy, a 5-year-old school named for an astronaut who died aboard Challenger, the space shuttle that exploded after takeoff in 1986.

The incident came as schools around the country are resuming for the fall academic calendar. Many districts took steps over the summer to improve security in light of the Newtown, Conn., shootings in December, when a 20-year-old gunman killed 20 children and six adults with a high-powered weapon before killing himself.

DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric Alexander said the McNair school has a system requiring visitors to be cleared and buzzed in, and the gunman gained entry by slipping in behind someone authorized to enter. He said the man did not get past the school's main office.

School clerk Antoinette Tuff said she worked to convince the gunman to put down his weapons and ammunition.

"He told me he was sorry for what he was doing. He was willing to die," Tuff said in an interview on ABC's World News with Diane Sawyer.

She said she told him her life story, including about the end of her marriage after 33 years.

"I told him, 'OK, we all have situations in our lives," she said. "It was going to be OK. If I could recover, he could, too."

Tuff said she asked the suspect to put his weapons and backpack down.

"I told the police he was giving himself up. I just talked him through it," she said.

Assistant Police Chief Dale Holmes said the suspect was not injured and was undergoing police interrogation.

Hudson said all the students have been accounted for. Students were evacuated into a field behind the school and reunited with their parents at a nearby Walmart, Hudson said.

Television images from a helicopter showed the students racing out of the building, escorted by teachers and police.

A woman in the school office called WSB-TV as the events were unfolding. She said the gunman asked her to contact the Atlanta station and police. WSB assignment editor Lacey Lecroy said the woman who made the call said she was alone with the man and his gun was visible.

"It didn't take long to know that this woman was serious," Lecroy said. "Shots were one of the last things I heard. I was so worried for her."

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond praised faculty and authorities who got the students to safety, staying calm and following safety plans in place.

"It's a blessed day. All of our children are safe," Thurmond said.

Complicating the rescue, bomb-sniffing dogs alerted officers to the suspect's car trunk, possibly indicating explosives were present, Alexander said.

Jonessia White, the mother of a kindergartner, said the school's doors are normally locked.

"I took (her son) to school this morning and had to be buzzed in," she said.

Jackie Zamora, 61, of Decatur, said her 6-year-old grandson was inside the school when the shooting was reported.
"I don't know how this could happen at this school," Zamora said. "There's so much security."

School volunteer Deborah Haynes said she stopped by the school office and saw a man talking to a secretary but she did not see a gun.

"I heard him say, 'I'm not here to harm any staff or any parents or students,''' she said. "He said he wanted to speak to a police officer."

"By the time I got to 2nd Avenue, I heard gunshots," she said.

USA TODAY/WXIA

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