Pamela James was lining up her students for a bathroom break when the intercom blared a warning teachers hope they’ll never hear.
“This is not a drill. We are on an intruder alert.”
James’s training took over: She gathered her children into a corner of her classroom, then locked the door, turned off the lights and ordered silence. Then, the fifth-grade teacher at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy contained her anxiety, pulled out her cellphone and tried to learn what was happening in the hallways outside. A text message from a colleague soon confirmed her worst fear: “It’s a white man in the school with an assault rifle. Don’t move.”
Police were swarming the building and would soon arrest 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill. He allegedly fired multiple shots, yet no one was hurt. Police credit a smooth-talking bookkeeper in the front office who kept him distracted, even as he fired a round into the floor.
Hill is in jail awaiting a court appearance.
DeKalb County police say Hill was armed with an AK-47 “type” rifle (probably semi-automatic, but they weren’t certain yet Wednesday) and 498 rounds when he entered the school around 1 p.m. Tuesday. “We have to make a reasonable assumption he was there to do harm to someone,” Police Chief Cedric Alexander said at a briefing Wednesday. Alexander recalled the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last year. “Was the potential there to have another Sandy Hook? Absolutely. I think we all can conclude that.”
James, the teacher, reached that same conclusion and tried to control her emotions for the sake of her students. In an interview Wednesday outside McNair High, where the elementary students were sent for the day, she recalled her alarm as she sent a text message to the school’s media specialist. His room, she knew, was next to the front office, so he could tell her what was happening. She kept the chilling text message exchange on her phone.
“Pam, don’t panic. The building is surrounded. Don’t walk into the hall,” James’s colleague wrote her.
“Where is the gunman,” James responded.
“The shooter is still in the building. He was shooting at the police.”
James kept this information from her students. Some of them were oblivious, snickering, and she told them they were the big kids in school, the “leaders,” and should remain composed and quiet.
Eventually, the bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, came over the intercom with a promising announcement: the gunman was sorry and didn’t want to hurt anyone. Another 25 minutes would pass, though, before James heard activity outside her door. She said she “very guardedly” peeked outside, and was relieved by the sight of badges and police gear.
Out the door and down the stairs they went.
James felt a sense of calm after they exited from the back of the building and into a swarm of police officers. Some children started to cry. Others wanted to find their brothers and sisters.
The children were boarded onto buses that ferried them a half-mile away to a Wal-Mart parking lot, where their parents had been told to wait.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Renea Green boarded one of the school buses when it reached the lot. She saw three classrooms of first-graders, apparently oblivious to the danger they had survived. She heard laughter.
“For the most part, they were unfazed,” Green said.
The children were excited about the free bags of chips they got as they exited the bus, she said. “I guess they didn’t understand.”
The parents sure did. They waited anxiously in the parking for their children, complaining about the hours that had passed with little information since they first learned of the shooting.
“We got nothing. For two hours, we’re standing out in this heat and we don’t know if anyone got shot or if the kids are OK,” said Elise White, who was among hundreds of parents milling about the Wal-Mart lot Tuesday.
DeKalb Schools Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond said the long wait was the inevitable result of safety precautions.
Authorities had to pause the school evacuation when bomb-sniffing dogs indicated the presence of possible explosives in a car parked outside the school, a car associated with Hill. It turns out there were no explosives, but the all-clear wasn’t issued until around 6 p.m., Thurmond said.
The plan had been to bring the buses from the front of the school — where they had been parked awaiting the end of a regular school day and where the melee had occurred — around to the back where the children had been staged.
Hill was arrested just before 2 p.m., and the dogs hit on a scent just after 2 p.m., Thurmond said. The ensuing security around the car meant the route to the back of the school was blocked, and the children were marooned, Thurmond said.
Officials then decided to re-route the buses around the side of the school, and cut a hole in the fence to let the kids through.
Finally, the buses arrived at the Wal-Mart lot. There, parents had to endure an elaborate process before being reunited with their children. The adults had to line up by the grade level of their children, then show ID, sign a document and write their address, then stand for a photograph with their children.
On Wednesday, most kept their children home from school. Normally, more than 600 students attend McNair each day. Just 170 came Wednesday. They were routed to a building at nearby McNair High while repairs were being made to their school.
Elementary school principal Brian Bolden said many parents volunteered Wednesday, helping in the cafeteria and the classrooms. He also got a phone call from a principal in Carlsbad, Calif., who welcomed him to a “tight-knit group” of principals who have had an “active shooter” in their school. “She said, ‘I understand exactly what you’re going through,’ ” Bolden said. He called it a “powerful, powerful learning experience.”
All students are expected to arrive promptly Thursday morning when the elementary school reopens. Said Bolden: “It is going to be business as usual.”
Staff writers Daarel Burnette and Jim Galloway contributed to this article.