DeKalb County

Beloved elementary school coach stripped of teacher of the year title

About 200 people joined Henderson Mill Elementary School coach James O’Donnell at a celebration Saturday. 

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — A day before a celebration to thank the hundreds of Henderson Mill Elementary School parents, students and alumni who rallied behind him in a dispute with the DeKalb County School District, veteran PE teacher James O'Donnell learned DeKalb was rescinding his recent teacher of the year award.

Known as Coach OD, O’Donnell was voted Henderson Mill Elementary School’s teacher of the year by his colleagues in mid-March. A sign at the school proclaimed him teacher of the year, as does the school yearbook.

Yet, the principal notified O’Donnell Friday he could not receive the honor, apparently owing to a county policy that staff involved in disciplinary actions aren't eligible for the title.

“Friday's action to remove Dr. O'Donnell's award, disrespecting the vote of the teachers at Henderson Mill, is a slap in the face,” said Bray Patrick-Lake, who leads a Team OD alumni Facebook group of 880 people.

In an email Sunday at 11:10 p.m., DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green told me:

Mr. James O’Donnell does not meet the eligibility criteria for Teacher of the Year. The District reserves the right to use alternates or exclude winners for non-compliance of school board policies, practices, rules or regulations or change in employment status.

A teacher at Henderson Mill Elementary for almost 40 years, O’Donnell was suspended in November over how he disciplined a student.

O’Donnell was teaching a PE class in the gym, a separate building connected to the main school building by a covered walkway. When a 10-year-old student acted up, O’Donnell made him stand outside the door to the walkway.

What happened next is the crux of the controversy. O’Donnell said the boy chose to run out in the rain, arriving to his next class wet and cold. (It was 46 degrees and raining.) The child’s mother said O’Donnell endangered her son by sending him outside and that no adult was watching him.

Current families at the school and former students from around the country were outraged at the suspension and the allegation Coach OD would endanger a child. They protested outside the school, flocked to board meetings, created social media campaigns and launched a Go Fund Me effort for legal fees.

District documents related to the case reveal Henderson Mill Elementary principal Cassandra Moore, new to the school this year, did not want O’Donnell back on her staff. The documents also show regional superintendent Trenton Arnold recommended termination.

But, in February, DeKalb announced it had worked out a legal agreement with O'Donnell and he would return to work at Henderson Mill Elementary School on Feb. 25. Less than a month later, his fellow teachers voted him teacher of the year.

On Saturday, around 200 people gathered in a church hall in the community where O’Donnell thanked them for their efforts on his behalf. They, in turn, shared their memories of his PE class and examples of his dedication. A former administrator at Henderson said he was probably the finest educator she has ever known.

“At the event to thank everyone for their support over these last six months, there was a lot of outrage about the time, energy, and money this incident has consumed,” said  Patrick-Lake. “The community is frustrated that Dr. O'Donnell was never given the benefit of the doubt. Had we not come together so fervently and dug in for a battle, we would have been steamrolled by DeKalb County. How many times has this happened to a community less affluent and organized? How many community treasures and outstanding educators have been driven out of DeKalb by these despicable methods of harassment and intimidation? ”

Parents fear stripping his teacher of the year honor is a prelude to transferring O’Donnell out of Henderson Mill.

I reached out to DeKalb school board member Allyson Gevertz, who attended Saturday’s community celebration, about what was happening to O’Donnell. “I don’t have all the info on this, so I really can’t comment,” she said.

I also reached out to the Georgia Department of Education as to whether there are rules for teacher of the year selections at the schoolhouse level.

The DOE spokeswoman told me, “I’m not aware of any statewide rules or regulations surrounding Teacher of the Year selections down at the school level. It’s an award given by the school and isn’t tied to state law or board rule. The district may have a process by which each of their schools are expected to select their Teacher of the Year, but that would be a question for them.”

On Facebook pages in support of O’Donnell, dozens of parents and alumni expressed dismay over this latest twist.

“I am in shock. This is despicable. Rally the troops, it is time for another fight. I can’t believe this,” wrote one.

Another said, “In my opinion, for a principal to rescind an award voted on by staff is unprofessional. To announce that rescission on the Friday before OD's celebration indicates a level of pettiness that does not bode well for success as a leader. I'd say unbelievable, but nothing surprises me any more.”

Comments on this article