The suspension of a DeKalb County elementary school coach set off a massive showing of support. Today, supporters learned the coach will return on Monday.

Beloved Henderson Mill Elementary coach will return to job Monday

Updated Friday with DeKalb Schools statement:

A much loved Henderson Mill Elementary School coach -- out of the classroom since a parent complaint in November over how he disciplined her child -- returns to the job on Monday, ending a saga that sparked an unprecedented outpouring of community support.  

With nearly 40 years at the school, James O'Donnell had become the stuff of legend, with dozens of former students attesting to how Coach OD taught them the value of fitness and turned them into life-long athletes. Students from his first class to his current class told the DeKalb school board that O’Donnell would never harm a child and belonged back at work.

In a statement Friday, DeKalb County Schools spokeswoman Eileen Houston-Stewart said, “Mr. James O’Donnell is anticipated to report to work at Henderson Mill Elementary School on Monday, February 25, 2019. We are preparing for his return to ensure a successful remainder of the school year for all students at Henderson Mill Elementary.”

Supporters of the coach held protests and rallies and created Facebook pages and a Go Fund Me campaign that raised more than $20,000 for his legal fees.

At times, it appeared the district was pressuring O’Donnell to retire. But he hired an attorney and fought for his job, buoyed by the community support. 

O’Donnell was suspended when a mother complained he left her son unattended in the rain after the boy misbehaved in a PE class. He was teaching a physical education class in the Henderson Mill Elementary School gym, a separate building connected to the main school building by a covered walkway. 

O'Donnell made the child stand outside the door to the walkway to simmer down, according to supporters. They contend the boy left the covered area and went into the rain. However, his mother told a TV station her son remained outside for 30 minutes in the cold and the rain, condemning the discipline as dangerous.

Here is a statement O'Donnell released to his supporters Thursday night: 

I am grateful to my community of over 1,000 supporters that included prominent leadership from around the country and most importantly, ordinary moms and dads who care about their children whom I have been blessed to know, many of them being former students of mine themselves.

I am so very grateful to each of you for your vigilance, your community organizing, and your testament to the impact I’ve had on your and your children’s lives over the past four decades. 

I am honored to be the beneficiary of a GoFundMe campaign created by the Henderson Mill community to cover my legal fees and expenses, the remainder of which will be donated to the Henderson Mill Physical Education Scholarship Fund.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
X