Teacher of the Year award stripped one day before celebration

James O’Donnell, a Henderson Mill Elementary School (HMES) physical education teacher, has been stripped of his Teacher of the Year award by DeKalb County School District (DCSD) following an incident that resulted in his suspension.

After O’Donnell was voted teacher of the year by HMES staff in March, DCSD officials rescinded O’Donnell’s award April 26─a day before his celebration to thank community members for their support during his suspension.

“Mr. James O’Donnell does not meet the eligibility criteria for Teacher of the Year,” said DCSD officials in a press release. “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.”

O’Donnell allegedly sent a student out of the gym because of unacceptable behavior in November 2018. According to community members, the student was asked to stand in the doorway in O’Donnell’s line of sight, under an awning that connects the school’s gym to the main building. At the time there was rain and temperatures were in mid-40s. After the student went home wet, O’Donnell was suspended and allegedly told by school district officials to retire or be fired.

James O’Donnell cuts a cake with his student supporters at an April 27 event. Photo provided by Julie Herron Carson.

After O’Donnell’s suspension, a group of HMES alumni, former teachers, community members and students attended DCSD board of education meetings and other district events to advocate for O’Donnell’s return. O’Donnell and the district reached an agreement that allowed O’Donnell to return to work Feb. 25.

According to eligibility criteria for the award, a nominee should not “have disciplinary documentation or negative performance evaluations currently or for the past two school years (including the current year).”

“What in the world [was DCSD] thinking?” asked Julie Herron Carson, an O’Donnell supporter.

After O’Donnell’s award was rescinded, approximately 200 of his supporters─students, parents, teachers and other community members─still gathered at Shallowford Presbyterian Church April 27 to celebrate his 40-year career with the school. DCSD board member Allyson Gevertz and former HMES Assistant Principal Gail Jones were also in attendance.

“[O’Donnell] probably greeted every single person with a big smile and a hug,” said Herron Carson.

The private “Support for Dr. James O’Donnell (OD) Henderson Mill Elementary School” Facebook page has gained 904 supporters since Nov. 28. Members of the group attended school event and board of education meetings until O’Donnell was allowed to work at HMES again. A GoFundMe page was created by the group to help with O’Donnell’s legal fees. As of May 1, the page has raised $20,728 with 173 donations.

“It is unfortunate that this harassment of [O’Donnell] and disrespect for teachers and the community continues,” said an unnamed supporter on the GoFundMe page.

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