Whatever an armed man planned to do when he walked into a DeKalb County elementary school, it wasn’t good. He slipped into a school Tuesday afternoon, creating a nightmare for hundreds in the community.
The alleged gunman, identified Tuesday night as 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, was quickly taken into custody at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, near Decatur, according to police. The suspect, armed with an AK-47, barricaded himself in the front office before he fired shots at officers, who then returned fire, DeKalb County police Chief Cedric Alexander said Tuesday afternoon.
No one was injured. But the hours-long ordeal was nothing short of a nightmare for parents and frightening for hundreds of students, in their second week of a new school year.
The school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, found herself alone with the alleged gunman, who instructed her to call one of the news stations. She called Channel 2 Action News.
Tuff told Channel 2 in an exclusive interview Tuesday night that “I just started praying for him. I just started talking to him and allowing him to know some of my stories 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.”
Tuff said she spent almost an hour with the suspect throughout the ordeal and asked him to put the weapon down.
“He had me actually get on the intercom and tell everybody he was sorry, too,” Tuff told Channel 2. “But I told them, he was sorry, but do not come out of their rooms.”
Hill put down his weapon and surrendered without further incident. But by then, multiple shots had been fired, according to police.
Hill apparently slipped into the school behind someone who had access to the building, police said. He was charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, police said.
Both GBI and FBI agents were dispatched to the area to assist numerous other law enforcement agencies, Alexander said.
Shortly after 6 p.m., officers surrounded a home near the school, but it wasn’t immediately known whose home it was. A car belonging to the suspect also was extensively searched, police said. Investigators planned to work through the night to piece together what may have led the suspect to cause the scare at the school, located in the 2100 block of 2nd Avenue.
About 800 students from pre-k through fifth grade attend the school, which employs nearly 70 teachers and staff members, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
GBI Director Vernon Keenan echoed the thoughts of many, saying how relieved he was that no one had been injured.
“It takes a lot of resources to handle something like this,” Keenan said. “We were dern lucky we didn’t have anyone killed in the school.”
But the logistics required to evacuate the school, transport hundreds of students to a safe location, and reunite them safely with family members proved frustrating to some.
In a Walmart parking less than two miles from the school, students were pulled one by one from buses and not allowed to go with a family member until school officials and law enforcement double-checked identification.
Shortly after 1 p.m., moments before shots were fired, Tuff, a school employee, called the assignment desk at Channel 2. A man had walked into the school with a gun, and he told her to call a TV station.
“This was his way of sending a message to police, by calling us,” according to Lacey LeCroy, Channel 2 assignment editor, who took the call. “She told me she was the only one in the office with him.”
LeCroy said that according to Tuff, the alleged gunman said he wanted police to back up, and that he wasn’t afraid to die.
Tuff gave LeCroy as much information as possible before there was silence on the line.
“For a long time, there was nothing from her,” LeCroy said.
Then, LeCroy heard gunshots. She stayed on line for about five minutes until she heard Tuff’s voice again.
“They got him. They got him,” Tuff told LeCroy.
Several shots were fired in the front office area before the suspect was taken into custody. Police then went classroom to classroom, knocking on doors and alerting teachers and students there was an intruder.
Fourth-grade student Lori Warner, 9, said a woman on the loudspeaker directed students outside and said that the gunman “didn’t want to harm us.”
“But I’m still mad,” Lori said.
After investigators discovered the possible explosives inside a vehicle in front of the school, the entire student body was evacuated out the back of the school, Alexander said. Then, investigators were forced to cut a hole in fencing to move the students off campus, Alexander said.
From there, school and MARTA buses were dispatched to pick up all students, and parents were notified to go to the parking lot of a nearby Walmart. But it wasn’t a quick process, frustrating some parents.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I’m mad scared, upset, disappointed,” said Tiyuana Lewis, whose 8-year-old son Tarik, was still at the school. “I don’t know how a gunman could just walk into the school with all that security. It makes no sense.”
Several parents noted the school recently installed a buzzer system.
As buses arrived at the Walmart, students were reunited with family members. Law enforcement leaders joined parents in expressing their relief that no one was injured.
Classes for the elementary students will be held at McNair High School on Wednesday, authorities said. Grief counselors will be at the school to assist students and staff.
—Staff writers Ben Gray, Daarel Burnette, Ty Tagami, Rhonda Cook and Mike Morris contributed to this report.