Dozens rally for DeKalb teacher suspended over student’s punishment

Several dozen people lined the street in front of Henderson Mill Elementary School early Friday afternoon to protest what they considered a hasty decision by the district to force a 40-year educator into retirement for making an unruly student stand outside in the rain.

Parents and supporters said DeKalb County School District officials decided to end James O’Donnell’s career without a proper investigation because the punished student’s mother went to the media with her child’s story.

“We want a more thorough investigation,” parent Pam King said Friday. Witnesses have not been talked to … and we have not been fully informed why they’ve come to the decision that they have. We’re talking about a man who has dedicated his entire career to this school, 39 years.”

Tara Gilmore said in an interview with Channel 2 Action News 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 told Channel 2 reporters. “He said, ‘Right on the wall.’ ”

District officials said in a statement that the incident took place Nov. 9, though Gilmore told Channel 2 the incident took place Nov. 12. School officials said Gilmore emailed Henderson Mill Elementary’s principal Monday, then emailed Superintendent Steve Green Tuesday. O’Donnell was notified by the district on Nov. 14 that he was being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Green said Thursday night during the November “On the Scene with Dr. Green” meeting at Columbia Middle School in Decatur that he would not comment on the matter, adding that he was allowing the district’s process, which includes investigating the incident, to run its course.

District officials sent a statement Friday that it “is committed to behaviors that provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students. The district does not discuss personnel matters and cannot speak directly to your questions about the individual you noted. However, the occurrence has been investigated and DCSD has taken appropriate action based on its findings.”

Jonathan Clay said Friday he was concerned O’Donnell’s career was effectively being ended for a questionable decision, as well as the message the district was sending its teachers.

“My concern is two-fold,” he said. “I’m concerned about teachers in general and how the school system is not allowing them to do the job they’re here to do, which is educate our children. What do you to with the other 25 students when one does wrong?

“If this can happen to Coach O’DOnnell, it can happen to any of them.”