(CNN) — As the kids trooped back into the suburban Atlanta elementary school that was stormed by a gunman earlier this week, everyone was talking about Antoinette Tuff.
The bookkeeper, an eight-year veteran of the DeKalb County school district, talked suspect Michael Brandon Hill into surrendering after a brief standoff with police Tuesday afternoon. Faced with an armed 20-year-old who told her he was off his medication for a mental disorder, Tuff shared stories of heartbreak from her own life to help calm him down — a recent divorce, a son with multiple disabilities.
Tuff was off Thursday as the students returned to Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, recovering from a pre-scheduled surgery. But Principal Brian Bolden said he credited Tuff’s quick thinking for avoiding what could have been a major tragedy.
“Her name, Antoinette Tuff, says everything about her,” Bolden said. “Tough. She has always been that way from the first time I met her.”
Online, a Facebook page calls for Tuff to be awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, while praise overflowed on Twitter.
“Antoinette Tuff used kindness and love in the face of terror, saved lives and showed true courage. Bravo Ms. Tuff,” Kathy Groob wrote from Covington, Kentucky, in a typical reaction on Twitter. And in New York, Francis Lam added, “Everyone: learn negotiation from her.”
Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, said Tuff’s performance was “amazing.”
“She didn’t do anything where she acted like a victim,” Voss told CNN’s “New Day.” “She didn’t say, ‘Please, don’t hurt anybody.’ She was very direct … she actually calmed the dispatcher down.”
Her tone of voice and matter-of-fact manner with Hill “did not encourage predatory behavior,” Voss said.
The recording of Tuff’s 911 call relays how calm she was.
“It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she tells Hill at one point in the call. “I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. No, you don’t want that. You going to be OK.
“I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is OK.”
Tuff, 46, and her husband separated in 2012 after 26 years of marriage, and their divorce became final in June, according to court records. Their son is 22.
A neighbor, Charlie Smith, said Tuff is friendly, but reserved. Their conversations have typically been limited to waves and pleasantries, she said.
“Everybody’s doing their own thing, going to their own jobs, and when you come home you’ve got a lot to do,” said Smith, who learned of her neighbor’s role in the McNair standoff on television.
“She handled it really well,” Smith said.
Another nearby resident, Lula Rivers, said Tuff “sacrificed herself” for the children in her care, putting herself at mortal risk if things had gone differently.
“I am a retired teacher. We have a lot of teachers, principals and nurses in this neighborhood,” Rivers said. “I’m sure she did what comes natural for a parent and someone coming out of this neighborhood. This is a nice, quiet neighborhood, and we cherish our children.”
Tuff has worked for the DeKalb County school system for eight years, three of them at McNair, schools spokesman Quinn Hudson said. Tuff is one of three staffers at McNair who are specifically trained for dangerous situations like Tuesday’s, he said.
But DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric Alexander told CNN, “You just don’t see that type of interaction in these types of situations very, very often at all.”
“There are some things in life you can rehearse for,” Alexander said. “But this is a woman who just kept her calm, kept her wits about herself, maintained her composure in this very dangerous situation.”