Supporters of a suspended Henderson Mill Elementary School coach want him fully vindicated and reinstated now, but DeKalb has not done so.

Suspended Henderson Mill coach will plead case to DeKalb tribunal 

Parents at Henderson Mill Elementary School learned their beloved physical education teacher James O’Donnell has decided to ask a tribunal to weigh his future with DeKalb County Schools. 

The suspension of O’Donnell – known as Coach OD – over how he disciplined 10-year-old in November outraged hundreds of Henderson Mill families who argued the incident was misrepresented and the district reaction was over the top. 

The district has not reinstated the 39-year DeKalb veteran with the full vindication he desires, despite an unprecedented outpouring of support. O’Donnell has chosen to take his case to a tribunal of three to five educators who will make a recommendation to the district.

A mother alleged OD forced her son to stand outside the school gym – which is connected to the main school building by a covered walkway -- for spinning on the floor during class. When her son came home from school, the mother said his clothes were soaked.

Parents said O’Donnell told the student to stand outside the gymnasium under the covered walkway, but the boy chose to run around in the rain. An issue that likely weighed in the review by DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green: Why was the student put outside the gym to collect himself?

O’Donnell’s supporters contend the gym was packed and there was no place for the student to stand. “People should know that if the boy was standing where he was told, he would be in the direct line of sight of an adult at all times,” said Kirk Lunde, a Tucker parent who was a paraprofessional under O’Donnell in 2012. “The coach can have an entire grade in that gym. There is no room for a child to stand on the sideline or against the wall in the gym because kids are standing along that wall waiting for their turn in the game. I have absolute comfort in what the coach did – there is no alternative as the coach can’t leave the other students to take the child to the principal’s office.”

Lunde predicts the tribunal will vindicate O’Donnell, but says that’s no guarantee the coach will end up back at Henderson for the rest of his career with DeKalb. Other teachers who have been cleared by tribunals end up sometimes being transferred to a different school as a result, he said. 

But few other teachers at odds with DeKalb Schools have spurred such a high-profile public campaign, and the transfer of O’Donnell to another school would anger parents.

Supporters and Henderson Mill Elementary alums have packed two school board meetings to defend O’Donnell, whom they credit with instilling lifelong healthy habits in his students. They’ve held a rally, a fitness event and sent hundreds of emails. They also have raised $20,000 for O’Donnell’s legal fund, which he will likely need now. 

Henderson parents condemn what they deem a rush to judgment on a longtime employee with an impeccable record at the same time DeKalb is hiring new teachers with serious blemishes on their records, blemishes easily discovered in an online search. 

As my AJC colleague Marlon Walker has reported

District officials have come under fire for hiring practices as several missteps have come to light, including a teacher hired over the summer who lied on his resume apparently to hide a 2013 arrest for meth possession, a teacher hired in 2017 after being fired from her previous district in Toledo, Ohio, for allegations she verbally and physically assaulted students.

In both instances, the offenses were found through internet searches.

In another case, a teacher was forced to retire in late 2016 after several of her students claimed she made threatening comments just after President Donald Trump was elected about getting them deported. She was brought back to the district as a substitute teacher in 2017, though a letter in her personnel file said she was ineligible for further employment with the district. When contacted about the alleged hiring snafus, district officials said in a statement that they stand by their current hiring practices.

Here is the posting on a Facebook page created by O’Donnell supporters about the upcoming tribunal:

Urgent Update and Call to Action! The following content has been approved by OD's attorney. Read carefully and take action on #4.

OD's case will head to a hearing with a tribunal likely in the first week or two of February. The hearing will be open to the public. We need all hands on deck to pack the room and overflow to the streets as a sea of green Mighty Hawks. Out-of-towners are encouraged to travel in. 

We have the following immediate needs:

  1. We need to identify parents of children who directly witnessed the incident and would be willing to grant permission for their children to testify at the hearing.
  2. We have a plethora of potential speakers to give testimonials and speak on OD's behalf. Those with power and influence are likely to be the most effective. If you hold an influential position or run a successful business and have yet to come forward, please email me. We already have strong candidates identified from our pool of board of education speakers, but I suspect there may be even more of you out there.
  3. If you are a teacher or retired teacher who is willing to speak on behalf of OD, we need to hear from you.
  4. We need every single one of you to ask the Dekalb Board of Education to hold Dr. Green accountable and immediately reinstate Dr. O'Donnell. Green has had the power and ability to get OD back to work ASAP and has chosen not to do so. Key points -- there is a tremendous teacher shortage and it is outrageous that Dekalb would treat a 39-year veteran who's dedicated his life to his students and the Henderson Mill Elementary Community so poorly when the county is desperately trying to hire and retain qualified staff. For Dekalb residents, the board works for you and these are your tax dollars. You want the situation remedied immediately.
  5. Write an op-ed in a local paper expressing your outrage at the way Green and Dekalb are treating its educators and thus harming its students.
  6. Media plans will follow. We need to remain visible keep and pressure on the board to make Green do the right thing. Put shoe polish on your car windows, if you have not already, saying, “Support Our Teachers, I Stand with OD.”

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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.