The suspension of a popular PE teacher at a DeKalb elementary school led to rallies and protests by the community to get him back to the school. 
Photo: Julie Herron Carson
Photo: Julie Herron Carson

Henderson Mill PE teacher controversy: Time to move on? 

The community restored the coach. It now needs to restore the calm

The battle over DeKalb’s suspension of a popular physical education teacher at Henderson Mill Elementary School accused of forcing a student to stand out in the rain continues to splinter a DeKalb community. DeKalb’s recent decision to rescind PE coach’s James O’Donnell’s Henderson Mill Elementary teacher of the year honor didn’t help.

The district suspended O’Donnell — a 39-year-veteran at Henderson Mill Elementary — in November after a mother complained to the school and a TV station that her fifth grader returned home wet after the teacher ordered him to stand outside the gym on a cold, rainy day for spinning on the gym floor. (It was 46 degrees that day, according to the district documents on this case.)

O’Donnell said he told the child to stand outside the doors to the gym, which connects to the main building via a covered walkway, but then the child ran into the rain. In a letter to the district, O’Donnell’s attorney said the coach “disputes all allegations that were made against him. He did not instruct a little boy to stand out in the rain.”

Outrage over the allegation erupted after the TV interview in which the mother said O’Donnell should resign. Supporters, including a thousand people who banded together in two Facebook groups, outnumbered parents who believe O’Donnell erred in putting the boy outside the gym.

After a review of the case, district documents reveal the legal office and administrators recommended suspension, removal or termination from the district. “I feel the coach made an egregious error of judgment and created an unsafe situation for the student by placing him in an unsupervised time-out. It is my recommendation that the teacher be removed as coach from Henderson Mill Elementary,” wrote principal Cassandra Moore.

Supporters of the coach protested, raised money, sent emails and gave moving testimony at board meetings over how much good O’Donnell had done for them, their children and the community. “The community is frustrated that Dr. O’Donnell was never given the benefit of the doubt,” said Bray Patrick-Lake, who leads a Team OD alumni Facebook group of 880 people. “Had we not come together so fervently and dug in for a battle, we would have been steamrolled by DeKalb County.”

Their efforts succeeded. “Somehow, the overwhelming support shown for the teacher’s 39-year career mitigates/absolves an offense that would normally lead to a 30-day suspension, removal or termination,” said Stephen Austin, the father of the boy. “Teachers know that leaving a student unattended is a violation of ethics policies. O’Donnell has 39 years’ experience. Why would he willfully do it?”

In late February, O’Donnell returned to a hero’s welcome from many parents and students, including being voted Henderson Mill’s teacher of the year by fellow teachers a month later.

But the day before a late April community celebration, O’Donnell learned the district was stripping him of the honor because he did not meet “eligibility criteria” even though the school had researched the question and concluded he could be considered. The district’s reversal dismayed his supporters and reopened the wounds at an event that the 200 attendees envisioned as a healing opportunity after the pain of the past few months.

Several aspects of this saga merit discussion. First, hundreds of former students, including folks who had O’Donnell 20 to 30 years ago, cared enough about an elementary school PE teacher to rally around him. I have seen communities fight teacher firings, but never with such tenacity.

However, at times, that intensity led to excesses, including a call on Facebook to dig up information on the mother who complained about O’Donnell. “This mother is trying to protect her child,” said DeKalb parent Jennifer Boyanton, who has been dismayed by the tenor of social media criticisms. “The mom is the one who gets things done around our neighborhood. If there is a water leak, a pothole — anything like that — she calls DeKalb until they come fix it. She would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it.”

The parents have moved their son and two siblings to another DeKalb school. “This is not about my son. This is about a teacher who took a child, put him outside of a classroom in the elements unattended,” said Austin. “This is not taking away from all the good things this teacher has done. The community seems to be saying this is just one thing and we should let it go. But people are accountable for their actions.”

A lot of the frustration in the Henderson Mill Elementary community has been directed at the school, but the central office response contributed to the escalation and exasperation. DeKalb yanked O’Donnell from Henderson Mill with no comment and returned him in similar silence, leaving stunned parents in the dark. Then, the district pulled his teacher of the year award and left it to the principal to face the community backlash.

The retraction of the teacher of the year award caps a year of controversy for the Henderson Mill Elementary community. They’ve restored the coach. Now, let’s hope they can restore the calm.

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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.