A year later, bookkeeper who calmed a school shooter has new life

It’s been a year since Antoinette Tuff won national acclaim for soothing a jittery, rifle-wielding man at an Atlanta area elementary school.

As a gun popped in the background, she relayed messages to a 911 operator: "And what else sir?" she said coolly, over a man's rambling voice. "He said he don't care if he die. He don't have nothing to live for."

The incident at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Center in DeKalb County, unlike so many at other schools around the country, ended without injury.

Michael B. Hill is still facing felony charges in DeKalb Superior Court, but Tuff has moved on. She gained quick renown for the way she stalled the intruder in the school office, buying time for the hundreds of students hiding quietly in their classrooms.

“Hero,” they called her. Were it not for her steely calm and soft empathy, they speculated, there might have been a massacre. The Aug. 20 incident had people reflecting on the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where just over half a year earlier no one was able to calm a killer.

Tuff, 48, didn't squander the momentary fame: She co-wrote a book — "Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege" — that has been garnering praise on Amazon. She started a foundation — Kids on the Move for Success — that has been handing out college scholarships. And she changed careers — from school bookkeeper to professional speaker and road warrior.

“No matter what your business struggles, financial worries, or leadership hurdles,” her promotional materials say, “invite Antoinette Tuff to your organization today to share her inspirational and practical message … .”

Instead of preparing each day to greet people in a school office, Tuff said she wakes up every morning and thinks about “whose life are we going to change today?” She’s traveled to engagements across the country and in Canada, she said, and has fielded interviews from across the Atlantic. At an event at McNair at 5 p.m. Wednesday, she said she will reveal the names of seven new scholarship winners selected by the board of her organization.

Tuff had a difficult childhood and had recently suffered a personal blow when Hill, seeming suicidal, entered the elementary school near Decatur. Her husband of 33 years had left her. She found it easy to empathize with Hill, whom she said she now loves “unconditionally.”

“He’s a young man who was crying out for help,” she said. “I had moments where I tried to take my own life. So I knew where he was coming from.”

Tuff was unwilling to talk about prosaic matters like school security or whether there should be more of it at McNair and other schools in general. When asked if there was enough the day Hill slipped past a locked door into the main school entrance, she responded with her own question, noting that there were no armed officers around.

“What do you mean enough?” she asked. “Our security was Jesus.”

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