STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — After a gunman entered an Atlanta-area school this week, DeKalb County’s education chief says he’ll consider hiring security officers to patrol the system’s 77 elementary campuses if it’s financially possible.
Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond said Friday that installing metal detectors on campuses for the district’s youngest pupils also was being considered. DeKalb’s high schools and middle schools already have armed officers and metal detectors, Thurmond said.
Police say a 20-year-old man with a history of mental illness entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy on Tuesday carrying an AK-47-style rifle and almost 500 rounds of ammunition. Authorities say Michael Hill exchanged gunfire with police before a school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, talked him into surrendering.
No one was hurt.
Thurmond praised Tuff and other employees at the school, which is less than 10 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta. But Thurmond said the district is reviewing school safety policies that were revised most recently after a December 2012 school shooting in Connecticut left 26 people dead.
The superintendent acknowledged differences of opinion about security measures for elementary schools. Systems aren’t as likely to have armed officers and metal detectors for elementary schools, reasoning that the likelihood of pupil-generated violence is lower and that the risks aren’t great enough to justify tighter security.
“My opinion has evolved,” Thurmond said. “Schools aren’t castles or fortresses, and we always have to balance our liberties with our safety.”
Neither school officials nor DeKalb police have said how Hill got in the school, which typically remains locked. Thurmond confirmed the school’s security protocol calls for guests to be “buzzed in” by someone in the main office. The police chief has said Hill might have slipped in behind someone.
McNair principal Brian Bolden said the “second layer” of the school’s security plan worked despite whatever initial failures allowed Hill to enter the building. The next line of defense, Bolden said, is to alert teachers to the threat and put the school on lockdown.
School employees first spread word of a gunman verbally and through text messaging, the principal said. Teachers did exactly what they were supposed to do, he said, by locking their doors and having children hide out of sight lines from the hallways. Students were not evacuated, he said, until police arrived.
Bolden said he’s been overwhelmed with support from metro Atlanta and across the country. He said he got “a touching e-mail” from someone affiliated with Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Connecticut site of the massacre last year. He said the Atlanta Braves organization offered “to bring the entire school to a game and honor them” before the end of the current baseball season. He said he’s already planning an event to honor Tuff.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed Bolden and other DeKalb officials Friday in a teleconference. Duncan urged them to prepare for emotional fallout among children, parents and staff. “Take care of each other,” he said. “The grief and anxiety will be real.”
DeKalb authorities have charged Hill with aggravated assault on a police officer, terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. His motives remain unclear, and police haven’t disclosed anything he told them in questioning.
Hill’s brother has said in media interviews that Hill has struggled for many years with mental illness that includes displays of threatening behavior.