A gunman on Tuesday opened fire with an assault rifle at officers who shot back at an Atlanta-area elementary school, a police chief said, with dramatic overhead television footage capturing the young pupils 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-school to grade five were evacuated from Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, a few kilometres east of Atlanta. They sat outside along a fence in a field for some time until school buses came to take them to their waiting parents and other relatives at a nearby Walmart store. When the first bus arrived about three hours after the shooting, cheers erupted in the store's parking lot from relieved relatives, several of them sobbing.
The suspect, identified later as 20-year-old Michael Brandon, fired at least half a dozen shots from inside the school 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. He had other weapons, though it wasn't clear how many, 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 authorised to be there, Alexander said. The suspect, who had no clear ties to the school, did not get 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 Atlanta news television channel WSB-TV as it was happening to say the gunman asked her to contact the TV 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.
Teachers and pupils unharmed
DeKalb county schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond praised faculty and authorities who got the young pupils to safety, staying calm and following plans in place. All teachers and pupils made it out of the school unharmed.
"It's a blessed day, all of our children are safe," Thurmond said at the news conference. "This was a highly professional response on the ground by DeKalb county employees assisted by law enforcement."
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.
Complicating the rescue, 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 pupils running from the building could get even farther away to a nearby street, he said. Swat teams then went from classroom to classroom to make sure all pupils were out.
Police had strung yellow tape up blocking intersections near the school while pupils waited to be taken to Walmart where hundreds of people were anticipating their arrival. The crowd waved from behind police tape as buses packed with pupils started pulling up along the road at the store. The smiling pupils waved back.
Regional superintendent Rachel Zeigler used a megaphone to say pupils were organised on the buses by grade level and that each bus would also be carrying an administrator, a teacher and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation officer. Relatives had to show ID, sign each child out and have their photo taken.
The school has about 870 children. The academy is named after Ronald McNair, an astronaut who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28 1986, according to the school's website. – Sapa-AP