A 20-year-old gunman who was talked into surrendering his assault rifle by a cool-as-a-cucumber bookkeeper after he allegedly stormed a school in Dekalb County, Ga., on Tuesday told police afterwards, “I’m sorry, I’m off my meds.”
Coming as America’s schoolchildren begin filtering back to school for a new year, the shots fired at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy by a possibly unstable young man with a deadly arsenal may have only reinforced perceptions that people experiencing mental illness pose a serious risk to children's safety.
The incident also gave schools a chance to examine security plans put into place after the shootings last December in Newtown, Conn., including potential weaknesses in various front-door security apparatus.
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More than 800 students escaped without injury from the confrontation, after Michael Douglas Hill allegedly gained entry to the heavily secured school by “piggy-backing,” or following another person, through the doors, and eventually shot 12 rounds at police from the school's front office before surrendering.
After Newtown, the push to relieve parental anxieties has focused on bolstering perimeter security, hiring armed guards, and training what security professionals call “immediate responders,” in this case, teachers and a bookkeeper, says Bob Lang, security chief at Kennesaw State University, in Kennesaw, Ga.
“In this case, [teachers] were probably briefed on what the process would be and how to get kids into a shelter-in area or lock the doors and get under desks,” he says. “But it all comes back to the perimeter – how are you keeping these people out? – and that was the weak point here.”
A strong point, however, was the school’s bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, who emerged as a hero after apparently talking Mr. Hill into surrendering his weapons, in part by telling him about her own hard times, including a divorce that ended a 33-year marriage and the difficulties of starting a business.
“I just started praying for him," she told Atlanta's Channel 2 Action News. "I just started talking to him ... and let him know what was going on with me and that it would be OK. And then let him know that he could just give himself up."
After Hill allegedly exchanged brief gunfire with officers outside the front office, Ms. Tuff says she persuaded Hill to empty his pockets and pile his weapons on the front desk.
"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."
"He had me actually get on the intercom and tell everybody he was sorry too," she added.
"I give it all to God, I'm not the hero," she said. "I was terrified."
“I think that just happened to be the circumstance involved, she had the opportunity,” says Mr. Lang, who adds that school staff are usually not trained as negotiators. “That [skill and bravery] is something you either have or don’t have.”
Hill appears to fit into another profile of school shooters: a history of mental illness. He allegedly told both Tuff and police officers that he hadn’t taken prescribed medications for mental health difficulties. Hill also has a criminal history.
A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll released Wednesday asked 1,001 Americans, including public school parents, about how to secure US schools. Fifty-nine percent of Americans said providing more mental health services will make schools safer, while 39 percent said hiring more armed guards would be most effective. The poll found that 88 percent of public school parents don’t fear for their children’s safety while they’re in school, and a majority say they’re more concerned about fellow students than attacks by strangers on schools.
The emergency at the Learning Academy began Tuesday when Hill allegedly entered the building and ordered Tuff to call a local news station to tell it to start filming “as police officers die.”
“He had a look on him that he was willing to kill,” Tuff recalled in TV interviews. “He was going to end his life and take all the cops and everybody with him. He said he didn’t have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die.”
School staff members had received training in how to deal with an active shooting situation, and they appeared to have responded according to plan, with teachers first locking kids into rooms and then rapidly moving them out of the school and onto buses as officers took control of the scene. A news chopper caught footage of children racing from the school.
“We’ve always had fire and tornado plans, but now we have full-fledged intruder threat plans, and procedures around, like in this case, how to get 870 students and faculty out of a school quickly,” says Amy Jeffs, chief operations officer at Status Solutions, an Atlanta-based security technology firm. “That’s something that almost all schools are doing” after Newtown.