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Antoinette Tuff: 'It wasn't a game'
02:31 - Source: CNN
Atlanta CNN  — 

Antoinette Tuff was hailed as a hero for saving an entire school from a shooting. But she didn’t brandish a gun to avert a would-be mass killer. She used love.

It was August 2013, and the school year had just started in Georgia. A gunman entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, an elementary school east of Atlanta, and fired his AK-47. He had more than 500 rounds of ammunition with him. The school went into lockdown.

The gunman faced Tuff, the school’s bookkeeper, who happened to be working the front desk that summer day. Tuff called 911 and then, with the dispatcher on the line, she spoke with her would-be killer, Michael Brandon Hill. For nearly 25 minutes, she relayed what Hill was saying and doing while trying to talk him down from a lethal ledge.

She told Hill about her own vulnerabilities – divorce, a suicide attempt and a disabled son.

“It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she said. “I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you.”

Hill surrendered to police. Not one person was hurt.

Since then Tuff has seen tragedy unfold in other American schools. The Valentine’s Day mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, was the latest and most gruesome. Former student Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, killing 17 people and injuring 14 others.

In the days after the Florida shooting, debate has raged again over gun control and how best to thwart violence in schools. As students organized rallies and demanded answers from lawmakers, President Donald Trump suggested that one answer was to arm teachers.

I sought out Tuff this week, curious about her thoughts on the prevailing national discussion.

Since 2013, Tuff has written a memoir, “Prepared for a Purpose,” become an inspirational speaker and launched mentoring programs in schools. I met her in the suburban Atlanta office of one of her program sponsors. She chose to sit where she could keep her eye on the door. Since her standoff with a gunman, she no longer feels comfortable with her back to an entrance.

Here is what the woman who saved a school had to say about guns, teachers and the role of empathy. Her answers have been lightly edited and condensed.

Q: How do you feel about arming teachers to protect schools?

A: I can go back to me on August 20, 2013. If I had had a gun on me, we’d have all been dead. Because you got to go back and look at the state of mind you are in at that moment.

I tried to commit suicide two days before that. My life was in an uproar. My husband had just left me after 33 years.

We already have teachers on the front lines every day. They are in the schools trying to teach our kids. They have behavior issues they are dealing with. They have foster kids, homeless kids. They have kids (whose) only outlet is when they come to school.

So now what we are saying to them is: Not only do you have to teach them in the midst of what you have going on, but then I need you to protect them, too?

What are we really saying? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves. At the end of the day, is it safe to put our educators in that position? Because they have families, too. When you put so many people in the fire, then who is going to snatch them out?

Q: So, what is the answer then?

A: I started my mentoring program back in the school system where the gunman held me hostage. What I am learning is that when we provide prevention and intervention programs in our schools, giving our kids some outlet from what they are going through every day, we see results.

We are showing our kids Tuff Tactics. Showing them compassion, competence and control. Showing compassion when (the situation) is overwhelming.

I was able to reach that gunman because I allowed him to know that despite what he was going through, I loved him. And I still do.

We have to be able to know where people are in their lives. And it’s hard to know that when you got a gunman in front of you and you are armed. You are going to go off instinct – fear and emotions of the moment. And those don’t line up to be the best when you are overwhelmed.

Our kids need one-on-one mentors. When they go through bullying in school, when they feel unsafe, they feel they have someone to talk to. It is going to offset (bad) behavior.

Q: How were you able to stay calm and show so much empathy for the gunman?

A: The only way I knew to address it was: “God, do you see what I see? God, what do I do?” Every word that I speak is life and death, not just for me but for 870 innocent children. And the gunman.

So I saw this 20-year-old man standing in front of me. He was the same age as my kids. I saw a young man crying out for help. At that moment he was not crying silently. He was crying out loud. I didn’t see the bullets on his back or the AK-47. All I could see was this youth in front of me.

We were pain meeting pain. That gunman passed several schools to get to my school. He parked his car right next to my car. God allowed me to get a phone call from the bank so it held me up at my desk to be at the front office at the right time at the right moment.

That day was chaos. You got brand new teachers coming in trying to do insurance, kids’ first day coming to school, crying kids who don’t have supplies. It was a crazy day.

I was terrified, but I couldn’t focus on that. All I could see was that young man and how were we all going to get home safely.

When we show that compassion, it just works.

That’s what we have gotten away from as a society and as a community.

What we do is we look at the outside of you. We size you up. And judge you.

With that young man – I didn’t judge him. I used my best judgment.

Q: What about the teachers?

A: We are talking about arming teachers, right? What we really need to do is take some of that funding, give it back to our teachers and get them salary increases and supplies.

Teachers have to go and take their hard-earned money on their low salaries to buy supplies and support these kids in school. Pencils and stuff – teachers (often) have to pay for that stuff. That’s my bookkeeper side talking.

Q: Had you dealt with guns before that day?

A: I had never seen a gun before. Ever. That was the first time I had ever seen a rifle. That was the first time a rifle had ever been shot in front of me. I thought it was all a joke at first because I had never seen a gun. I had never been around guns my entire life.

Q: Do you feel things are different after the Florida shooting and that we will see legislative action?

A: Look, our kids have always been crying out. They have been crying out in stages. We as parents and adults didn’t listen to them cry. These kids in Florida … are saying enough is enough, and they are crying out louder.

Something has to be done. I commend them for that.

Q: Is gun control the answer?

A: It’s a bigger picture than guns. It goes back to youth safety. Period.

Kids are not killed just by guns. I’m killed when I go into school and am bullied. I’m just killed in a different way. I’m killed and my self-esteem is torn down. I don’t know how to build it back up, and I can’t hope to build it back up. Our kids are killed with things that go on on a daily basis. How do we focus on that?

I think the first step is legislators need to come to the dialogue. We need to be able to have everybody at the table to voice their opinion, to respectfully hear what’s going to make a difference in our communities.

Our responsibility as a community is to take the conversation where it needs to be. And that is about youth safety. I think we need to be able to bring parents in, bring educators in and have a discussion. It’s now time for us to stop sweeping it under the rug and have a conversation.

I feel we have a group of kids now who are going to make something happen.

Let’s watch and see how they move. This is the first time we are having marches. We’re seeing change. It may not be the way we want it. Or as fast as we want it. But we are seeing change.

Q: You relied on your faith to get you through that terrible day at the school. Do you still fall asleep listening to the Bible every night on an audiobook?

A: Yes I do. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want … Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Psalms 23.

That’s the kind of conversation we have to have with our children and our babies when they go out. They need to know they are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We have to teach them not to fear any evil. And that is not easy.

Q: After everything you have gone through, do you own a gun?

A: No. I got Jesus. He’s a good gun for me.