Several dozen parents and community members showed their support for suspended coach James O’Donnell Friday at Henderson Mill Elementary School.

DeKalb Schools targets a beloved coach and outrages a community

A beloved coach at a DeKalb County elementary school is under pressure by the district to resign, leading to concerns this is another example of draconian consequences to a teacher with an exemplary record.

The suspension of Henderson Mill Elementary coach James O’Donnell – Dr. OD to many – over how he disciplined a student is spurring a revolt at the north DeKalb school, where parents protested Friday on behalf of the 39-year DeKalb veteran.  

Alumni are rallying behind him with Facebook pages, letters of support and a Go Fund Me effort for legal fees if O’Donnell fights to keep his job. 

“He has coached my husband, sister-in-law, and both our children,” said parent Kristen Bryant. “Our 6-year-old daughter is currently a student and adores him. She couldn't wait to tell him about completing her first 5-K over the Thanksgiving break because she knew he would be so proud of her achievement. You see, he pushes the children to new levels of daily physical fitness while building immense confidence in them that many alumni will still credit to him many years and years later. Coach O'D has been featured in the Guinness Book of World Records because he is constantly raising the bar. He models daily that hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off.”

“I had the opportunity to work with Dr. OD for 15 years,” said Elaine Mach. “I remember the first year I was at Henderson Mill and I went to an airfield to watch him jump out of an airplane to raise money for the school and new P.E equipment. I was shocked someone would be willing to skydive for the first time in their life to raise money for their school. Who does that? Only Dr. OD. During my years at Henderson Mill, I was always astonished at the number of grown men and women who would return just to say hi to Dr. OD and wanting to share their accomplishments with him. This is because Dr. OD always pushed the kids to do their very best and to believe in themselves. I also know for a fact that over the years he helped several students financially so they could go to college. This is just a few reasons why I am astonished and terribly saddened by the way this extraordinary teaching career may end.”

On a rainy day last month, O’Donnell was teaching a physical education 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 to simmer down, according to supporters. They contend the boy left the covered area and went into the rain. His mother told a TV station her son was forced to remain outside for 30 minutes in the cold and the rain. The student arrived home still wet, which prompted his mother’s complaint about unsafe discipline.

Along with a protest Friday, supporters of a longtime Henderson Mill Elementary coach are donating money to his legal fund.

A former assistant to O’Donnell said any accusation the coach put a child at risk is unfounded.

“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. “

With 300 trailers across DeKalb Schools, Lunde noted children are allowed to walk outside between buildings all the time. “How do kids get to the bathrooms? Teachers aren’t escorting them to the bathroom. I can’t believe Dr. Green believes a child being outside the door but visible to an adult and under a cover was considered unsupervised any more than all those students who need to use the restroom.”

“A few days into this, I feel like this problem is so much bigger than one person,” said parent Kristen Bryant. “This is a systemic problem in the DeKalb County School District and most likely others, where educators in remote locations, such as gyms and trailers, are put at risk when a child misbehaves or when an emergency situation occurs. What are they supposed to do and how is the county supporting them? “

The stance of DeKalb Schools points to what seems an increasingly hard line by Superintendent Steve Green on teacher transgressions, even in circumstances where the teacher’s mistake was inadvertent and a blip in an otherwise esteemed career.

Two other examples: the removal of a French teacher at the DeKalb School of the Arts a year ago after taking a student suggestion during a school lockdown to play a brief YouTube clip from the animated French classic, “The Triplets of Belleville,” which a parent deemed objectionable, and the transfer out of the classroom of a legendary German teacher at Chamblee Charter High School in June for assigning skits to his fifth-year German students that some complained included vulgar material. 

“We, the community stakeholders, wish desperately to work with DeKalb Schools to move the needle toward a positive result for Henderson Mill Elementary, its educators, and the school system as a whole. As we prepare for the county board meeting later today, we want you to know that we wish to partner with them to somehow make this a win for the students and the educators, and that is still possible,” said parent Jonathan Clay, a DeKalb native who had the coach as a student himself at Henderson Mill and now has two children at the school. “A final decision on Dr. OD has not been reached and it is still possible to move the dialogue in a direction that benefits the students while not impacting Dr. OD’s career and threatening the careers of all educators. At this point, it doesn’t have to end negatively.”

A major concern seldom addressed by any district after the abrupt removal of a teacher is the impact on students. A new study suggests sudden departures of teachers midyear set students back academically. (I plan to interview the study authors this week.) For instance, DeKalb struggled to replace the language teachers it pulled from its high schools, undermining the ability of students to learn all the required material. 

DeKalb Schools had its usual response to these stories: The DeKalb County School District 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.”

In talking to teachers in the district, several voiced concerns about the contrast between how Green treats teachers and how he treats administrators. (See Leo Brown story

As one teacher told me in an email: “This is an absolute shame I cannot believe I work in a place that treats employees like this after so many years of service. I sure hope a parent doesn't decide to contact the media the next time I discipline a child in my class. I could be next.” 

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...
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