Calm, cool, emotionally intelligent-all of those adjectives describe Antoinette Tuff’s response to the troubled man who intended to shoot up Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, an elementary school in Decatur, Georgia, August 20, 2013.
Tuff, the school bookkeeper, called 911, relayed what was happening, and then personally negotiated with the intruder, Michael Brandon Hill, convincing him to lay on the floor, empty his pockets and go peaceably. Only after the crisis was over did Tuff break down in tears.
Antoinette Tuff’s response to the crisis situation illustrates several aspects of smart hostage negotiation, despite the fact that she is a bookkeeper by trade, and not a trained hostage negotiator.
Effective Hostage Negotiation
Tuff was not in the position to isolate the intruder, as armed police might be. But Tuff did interact with the young man in much the way that a smart negotiator would.
The international crisis-preparation organization, CPI, provides verbal de-escalation training. CPI provided information originally published by Law and Order Magazine on the company’s website to inform individuals to resolve crises. The key to de-escalation is communication: Negotiators are to provide “undivided attention,” “be non-judgmental” and “focus on feelings.” Other suggestions are to “allow silence” and to “clarify messages.”
Tuff’s response to the young man, who could have easily taken her life, was spot on, from a sociological perspective. She provided him with attention in a non-judgmental fashion and discussed the intruder’s feelings, remaining calm herself.
Tuff mentioned her own divorce and disabled child, demonstrating that she understood and could empathize with severe stress. She talked soothingly with the hostage-taker, saying, “it’s all going to be well,” interacting with him as a fellow human being. Most astoundingly, this tough woman was able to talk Hill into disarming, ensuring he had clearly followed instructions to lay on the floor, empty his pockets and disarm.
The intruder had over 500 bullets, according to NBC News and had “darted outside to shoot at police.” Yet Tuff was the key to the negotiations: No one was physically harmed.
‘Tuff’ Bookkeeper Saves Kids
Yes, Antoinette is indeed Tuff. One blogger has compared her to Superman-but without the cape, super powers, or guaranteed happy ending. Crisis resolution is a skill more people should possess, and less should have to use.
The children affected by the situation were given counseling the next day, a much happier ending than expected. Antoinette Tuff should have the enduring gratitude of the entire community – and if this leads to additional training in schools, and further lives saved, perhaps the nation owes this dedicated individual a debt of gratitude as well.
Dufresne, J. Communication is the Key to Crisis De-Escalation. (2013). CPI. Accessed August 23, 2013.
Johnson, Alex. ‘He Said He Don’t Care if He Dies’: 911 Call from Georgia School Shooting Released. (2013). NBC News Accessed August 23, 2013.
Anselmi, L. Antoinette Tuff Super Human. (2013). Blog Her. Accessed August 23, 2013.
Decoding Science. One article at a time.