Studies and personal accounts from students of color reinforce a major problem in the education system in the United States: Students of color, and Black students in particular, are subjected to systemic racism even while in the classroom. Where some students receive opportunities to learn, grow, experiment, and develop themselves, others are eyed for disciplinary actions, suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests. Even if students of color make it out of the school system without those traumas, many are still exposed to whitewashed history from colonialism, to slavery, to the civil rights movement.
All of these are reasons why it’s so important that students had access to a safe space in the classroom of Amy Donofrio, a white high school English teacher in Jacksonville, Florida. Donofrio taught at Robert E. Lee High School, where she served a student body that is more than 90% students of color and about 70% Black. Hanging a Black Lives Matter banner in her classroom back in October 2020 should have been celebrated—but instead, as reported by USA Today, Donofrio is now out of the classroom and in a school district warehouse, where she sits and waits to face a school disciplinary hearing. How did this come to be? Let’s check out the background and the current stakes below.
Now, if you’re reading this and thinking, “Hey, wait a minute: If this twelfth-grade teacher hung the Black Lives Matter flag back in October, why is this an issue now?”, that’s a good question, and it’s where this situation gets extra complicated. In March 2021, community members were able to vote on whether or not the name of the school—which commemorates a Confederate general—should be changed. Ultimately, the school board will vote and decide the issue during a meeting in June 2021.
How was Donofrio involved? The teacher attended some of these public meetings (held in the auditorium of the school), recorded them, and posted the videos to Facebook. Footage that quickly went viral on social media included mostly white adults spewing some seriously shocking anti-Black language. The teacher told USA Today she had been concerned about the welfare of students of color hearing some of the language and remarks, so she reported her concerns to the school administration.
From there, as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, someone who attended the public meeting complained to the school about the teacher and her Black Lives Matter flag. Then the school again directed Donofrio to take down the banner and had a written guideline prohibiting teachers and staff from some kinds of speech. Why again? Because this isn't the first time Donofrio had been spoken to about the banner; when she first hung it, back in 2020, administrators said it violated a district policy and asked her to remove it. When the teacher asked to clarify which policy the banner violated, however, she argued that the policies provided didn’t actually fit her circumstances, and continued to hang the banner.
Today, Donofrio has not been fired from her position; instead, she is currently in a paid nonteaching role, which is why she reports to the school warehouse for seven hours per day, as reported by the SPLC. She no longer has classroom duties. What was Donofrio like in the classroom? As she told Suzette Hackney at USA Today in an interview, she wanted students to be able “to walk into my classroom and breathe” and embrace the space as a haven.
The 34-year-old teacher told the outlet that the school was fewer than 100 miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed, and that in her classroom she and students have discussions about both Trayvon and George Floyd. “It was the first time any students in the class have ever been allowed to talk about it in school,” Donofrio said. “In Jacksonville, the oppression is so intense and the racism is so intense from a system level – in our school system, in our policing system, in our judicial system – and I know that's everywhere. But Jacksonville is a special kind of place."
And now? Donofrio, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and co-council Scott Wagner and Associates, P.A, is suing the school to uphold her rights (and the rights of her students). Among those rights is the right to share their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. On the other hand, the school district argues that Donofrio speaks for the government as a public employee, suggesting that her speech (in this case in the form of a banner) could be considered disruptive. In her federal lawsuit, Donofrio argues that her rights to free speech are protected by the First Amendment and that specifically in Florida, the school district would need to receive written consent to infringe upon that.
You can check out an interview with Donofrio below.
You can also check out a TEDx Talk Donofrio gave back in 2017 about the importance of labels people use when it comes to youth.