Several dozen protesters march along Henderson Mill Road in front of Henderson Mill Elementary School in late November to support longtime physical education teacher James O’Donnell, who was suspended by DeKalb County School District officials for how he punished one of his students. MARLON A. WALKER / MARLON.WALKER@AJC.COM

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

DeKalb Schools officials rescinded teacher of the year honors for a Henderson Mill Elementary School physical education teacher who was suspended nearly three months this year after being accused of making a student stand in the rain.

James O’Donnell’s suspension last fall sparked protests by parents and students, as well as former students who talked about his impact on their lives over his 40-year stint at the school.

Notice that his teacher of the year honor was stripped came a day before a community celebration meant to move on from the suspension and subsequent fallout.

“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?” The school’s staff chooses its teacher of the year.

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green said O’Donnell doesn’t meet the criteria for the honor. The honor will go to another designated employee.

“The district reserves the right to use alternates or exclude winners for noncompliance of school board policies, practices, rules or regulations or change in employment status,” Green said.

According to eligibility rules received from the school, the honoree must not be currently on a professional development or improvement plan, nor have disciplinary documentation or negative performance evaluations for the previous two school years. District officials have not said which of the criteria O’Donnell did not meet.

“He got this honor on March 21,” said Bray Patrick-Lake, who runs one of several social media pages supporting O’Donnell through his suspension. “Why would you wait until the day before this event. It’s like a strategic strike to the heart of the community. 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.”

Julie Oinonen, the attorney representing O’Donnell, said Monday that the district should protect the teacher from continued retaliation.

“After the allegations made against him that Dr. O’Donnell 100% denied, we were gratified that the district agreed to enter into a settlement agreement and he returned to work,” she said. “Unfortunately, since that time he has continued to be subjected to discriminatory retaliation, including most recently being stripped of (a) Teacher of the Year Award one day before the party was to be held honoring him.”

O’Donnell’s suspension came after 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.

Regional Superintendent Trenton Arnold and Henderson Mill Elementary School Principal Cassandra Moore both recommended O’Donnell be terminated during his suspension.

“Even if the directive to tell the student to stand against the wall in the rain is taken out of consideration, Dr. O’Donnell acted unprofessionally by failing to properly supervise a student,” Arnold wrote on Nov. 15 in his recommendation to the district’s Office of Legal Affairs.

Instead, 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 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,” O’Donnell said after the agreement was reached.

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