Gunman, officers trade fire at Atlanta-area school
DECATUR, Ga. — A gunman opened fire with an assault rifle on Tuesday at officers who shot back at an Atlanta-area elementary school, a police chief said, with dramatic overhead television footage showing students racing out of the building, being escorted by teachers and police to safety. No one was injured.
Just a week into the new school year, more than 800 students in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade were evacuated from Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, a few miles east of Atlanta. They sat along a fence in a field for a time until school buses came to take them to their waiting parents and other relatives at a nearby Wal-Mart. When the first bus arrived about three hours after the shooting, cheers erupted in the store parking lot from relieved relatives, several of them sobbing.
The suspect, identified as 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, fired at least a half-dozen shots from inside McNair at officers who were swarming the campus outside, the chief said. Officers returned fire when the man was alone and they had a clear shot, DeKalb County police Chief Cedric L. Alexander said at a news conference. Hill surrendered shortly after and he had other weapons, Alexander said. Police had no motive.
Though the school has a system where people must be buzzed in by staff, the gunman may have slipped inside behind someone, Alexander said. The suspect, who had no clear ties to the school, never got past the front office, where he held one or two employees captive for a time, the chief said. Hill is charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
A woman in the office called WSB-TV as it was happening to say the gunman asked her to contact the Atlanta station and police. WSB said during the call, shots were heard in the background. Assignment editor Lacey Lecroy said she spoke with the woman who said she was alone with the man and his gun was visible.
“It didn't take long to know that this woman was serious,” Lecroy said.
DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond praised faculty and authorities who got the young students to safety, staying calm and following plans in place.
School volunteer Debra Hayes said she encountered the suspect without knowing it.
She stopped by the office at the end of her shift and saw a man talking to a secretary but she did not see a gun.
“I heard him say, ‘I'm not here to harm any staff or any parents or students.' He said he wanted to speak to a police officer.
“By the time I got to 2nd Avenue, I heard gunshots.”
Bomb-sniffing dogs alerted officers to something in the suspect's trunk and investigators believe the man may have been carrying explosives, Alexander said. Officials cut a hole in a fence to make sure students running from the building could get even farther away to a nearby street, he said. SWAT teams went from classroom to classroom to make sure people were out.
Jonessia White, the mother of a kindergartner, said the school's doors are normally locked.
“I took (my son) to school this morning and had to be buzzed in,” she said. “So I'm wondering how the guy got in the door.”