Henderson Mill Elementary parents and students have rallied for beloved PE coach James O'Donnell, suspended in November after a parent complained about how he disciplined her son.

Henderson Mill Elementary parents still fighting for their beloved coach

Today, unhappy Henderson Mill Elementary School parents plan to make a second appearance before the DeKalb school board to ask if and when their beloved PE coach is returning. 

In November, DeKalb Schools suspended Henderson Mill Elementary coach James O’Donnell – Dr. OD to many of the students he taught in his 39 year career – over how he disciplined a student, making the boy stand outside of the gym in a T-shirt on a rain-soaked afternoon, according to his outraged mother.

Other parents disputed the account, pointing to contradictory statements from children in the class as to why the boy got wet in the rain. Their devotion to O’Donnell has led them to rally outside the school, raise nearly $20,000 for his legal fees and bombard the school board and superintendent with pleas to re-instate him.

At the December school board meeting, more than a dozen supporters addressed the board, touting O’Donnell’s exemplary record and urging the district to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So far, the district has not tipped its hand as to O’Donnell’s fate, and he remains on leave. DeKalb Schools resumed today after the holiday break and O’Donnell was not at Henderson Mill Elementary, causing some parents to fear the worst. 

The controversy began on a rainy 45-degree day in November. O’Donnell was teaching a physical education class in the gym, a separate building connected to the main school building by a covered walkway. 

When a 10-year-old student acted up, O’Donnell made him 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. But the child’s mother told a TV station her son was forced to remain outside for 30 minutes in the cold and the rain. The student arrived home still wet, which prompted his mother’s complaint about dangerous discipline and led to the coach’s suspension.

Parents and students, current and former, contend O’Donnell would never endanger a child and the suspension represented a rush to judgment.

When he spoke at the December board meeting, former Henderson Mill parent and retired DeKalb educator Anthony Stinson said the coach deserved a fair hearing. As the 2006 DeKalb Teacher of the Year, Stinson said he always felt his superintendent and board knew his record and supported him.

“If a teacher has dedicated 20, 30, 40 or more years to this county,” Stinson said, “you owe them that allegiance and the assurance you stand with them in the quest to educate students and assume innocence when allegations are made until further investigations show differently.”

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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.