When the kids returned to the suburban Atlanta elementary school that was hit by gunmen earlier this week, everyone was talking about Antoinette Tuff.
The accountant, who worked for the DeKalb County School District for eight years, persuaded suspect Michael Brandon Hill to surrender after a brief altercation with police on Tuesday afternoon. Confronting a 20-year-old armed girl who told her he was off medication for a mental disorder, Taff shared a heartbreaking story from her own life to reassure him – a recently divorced, a man with multiple disabilities son.
Tuff was off Thursday when students returned to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy. But director Brian Bolden said he appreciates Taff’s quick thinking to avoid a major tragedy that could occur.
“Her name, Antoinette Taff, says it all about her,” Bolden said. “It’s hard. She’s been like this since I first met her.” Online, a Facebook page called for Tuff to be awarded the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, while praise on Twitter was rife.
How she convinced the shooter to surrender 02:09
“Antoinette Tuff showed kindness and love in the face of terror, saved lives, and showed true courage. Awesome, Ms. Tuff,” Kathy Groob from Covington, Kentucky, tweeted typical reaction. In New York, Francis Lin added: “Everyone: Learn to negotiate from her.”
Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss said Taff’s performance was “amazing.”
“She didn’t do anything that she acted like a victim,” Voss told CNN’s New Day. “She didn’t say, ‘Please don’t hurt anyone.’ She was direct … She actually reassured the dispatcher.”
Voss said her tone and factual approach to Hill “did not encourage predatory behavior.”
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The recording of Taff’s 911 call shows her calmness.
“Everything will be alright, honey,” she told Hill at one point on the phone. “I just want you to know that I love you, okay? I’m so proud of you. Just let it go, don’t worry. We all go through something in life. No, you don’t want that. You’ll be fine.
“That’s what I thought too, you know, after my husband left me last year, I tried to kill myself. But now look at me and I’m still working, and it’s all good.”
Tuff, 46, and her husband separated in 2012 after 26 years of marriage, and their divorce was finalized in June, according to court records. Her son is 22 years old.
Neighbor Charlie Smith said Tuff was friendly but conservative. Their conversations are usually limited to waving and greetings, she said.
“Everyone does their own thing, their own work, and when you get home, you have a lot to do,” said Smith, who learned on TV about her neighbor’s role in the confrontation with McNair Role.
“She handled it very well,” Smith said.
Another nearby resident, Lula Rivers, said Tuff had “sacrificed herself” for the children in her care and that her life would be in danger if things turned out differently.
“I’m a retired teacher. We have a lot of teachers, principals and nurses in this community,” Rivers said. “I’m sure she does what comes naturally to parents and people from this community. It’s a wonderful, quiet community and we cherish our children.”
Tuff worked for the DeKalb County school system for eight years, including three at McNair, Principal Quinn Hudson said. He said Tuff was one of three McNair employees who were trained specifically for Tuesday’s dangerous situation.
But DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric Alexander told CNN, “You don’t see that interaction at all in this situation, it’s very, very frequent.”
“There are some things in life that need rehearsal,” Alexander said. “But this is a woman who stayed calm, kept her sanity and kept her composure in this very dangerous situation.”