DeKalb teacher wins employee of the year, then district rescinds it

In November, physical education teacher James O'Donnell was put on administrative leave when a parent told administrators the teacher put her child outside the gym in the rain as punishment.

He returned to Henderson Elementary School more than three months later, with no explanation from district officials about his extended time away.

In March, he was voted the school’s teacher of the year.

ExploreLast week, district officials rescinded the honor, a day before a planned community celebration.

“I’m incredibly disappointed the administration behaved in such a childish fashion,” said Kirk Lunde, a DeKalb parent who previously worked with O’Donnell at the school as a teaching assistant. “If he was ineligible, why didn’t the principal stop it before the voting happened?”

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green said O’Donnell doesn’t meet the criteria for the honor. In that case, schools have the right to choose an alternative honoree.

According to eligibility criteria rules received from the school, the honoree must not be currently on a professional development or improvement plan, nor can they have disciplinary documentation or negative performance evaluations for the previous two school years.

Efforts to reach O’Donnell were not successful.

Tara Gilmore said in November that her son, Joe Austin, came home from Henderson Mill Elementary on Nov. 12 with his clothes soaked. He told his mother he had to stand outside the school gym for more than 30 minutes after he spun around on the floor during gym class, and his coach told him to get up.

“I asked where should I stand,” Joe said. “He said, ‘Right on the wall.’”

O'Donnell told supporters the boy chose to run out in the rain instead of standing under an awning that would have kept him dry. Facebook pages popped up supporting the teacher, with communities of more than 1,000 people combined. News of the rescinded honor was met with concern and disappointment from those supporters.

“From the beginning, the goal of hundreds of concerned community members has been to reinstate Dr. James O’Donnell at Henderson Mill Elementary School, and allow him to teach without the threat of a transfer or worse,” said Bray Patrick-Lake, who runs one of the online support communities. “We are delighted he is back in the classroom, and we will continue to voice our opposition to any proposed future transfer away from (Henderson Mill Elementary School), harassment or additional punitive actions.

O'Donnell returned to the gym on Feb. 26 after reaching an agreement with district officials. No one never explained his extended absence, and terms of the agreement were not made public.

“I am grateful to my community of over 100 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,” O’Donnell said after the agreement was reached.