The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the private employment law firm Scott • Wagner and Associates filed suit in federal court today on behalf of a Florida high school teacher who was removed from her classroom and reassigned to administrative duties in retaliation for displaying a Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag over the objection of school administrators.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, claims that officials at Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) violated her First Amendment rights and other constitutional and statutory protections because of her advocacy on behalf of Black students.
Amy Donofrio is a white teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, a school where about 70% of students are Black.
“I hope this case will set a needed precedent,” Donofrio said. “Teachers should not be punished for supporting their students’ humanity. Our students matter, and as educators, we will no longer tolerate them being systemically damaged, silenced, and failed. To our Black students, we see you, we stand with you, and you matter.”
Late last year, Donofrio hung the BLM flag on her classroom door to communicate a safe and supportive space for Black students following several high-profile killings of unarmed Black people by police and racist vigilantes. Many students confided in her that seeing the emblem brought them comfort – especially in a school named after the commander of the Confederate army, an avowed racist and former owner of enslaved people, and because they had experienced racism in their own lives.
The 13-year veteran teacher has also been outspoken about racist comments made by alumni during recent public meetings held to discuss renaming the school. Donofrio raised concerns about the emotional harm inflicted on students by the hate speech. She also complained to school board members about administrators requiring Black custodial staff to remain in the cafeteria, away from the meetings.
Afterward, the school ordered her to take down the BLM flag. When she refused, noting that she had violated no policy, the administration forcibly removed the flag, placed her on administrative leave and reassigned her to non-teaching duties, pending an investigation into “allegations of potential misconduct” that the district has not defined.
Assigned to work in a warehouse, she has not been allowed to teach or enter the school since March 25.
“Educators who value and respect their students should be supported by their schools and communities not punished for it,” said Evian White De Leon, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. “The school district was wrong to remove Ms. Donofrio from the classroom after she displayed a Black Lives Matter flag on her classroom door to support her students. We are suing the district to get her back in the school where she belongs without further harassment by school administrators.”
Following the district’s discipline, Donofrio’s students started a petition demanding the school return their teacher to the classroom. “At my school we have this AMAZING teacher Ms. Amy Donofrio who has done nothing but support and push any child she came across for the best,” wrote the petition’s author, Jayla Caldwell, 17. “She has always advocated for racial equality.”
This was not the first time Donofrio spoke up in support of her Black students.
When she started teaching a life skills course in 2016, she found that the majority of her Black male students had experienced trauma and racism. In response, she and her students designed a curriculum to help meet their social, emotional and academic needs. Because so many of the students had been wrongfully profiled by the police as gang members, they created T-shirts and hoodies that say: “I am not a gang member.” It was the beginning of the EVAC movement, a nonprofit social justice organization aimed at shifting false and racist stereotypes about Black boys.
EVAC, initially a class offered for school credit, garnered national attention. In 2017, members traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in a U.S. Department of Justice roundtable about juveniles and the justice system – and then met President Barack Obama when he visited Jacksonville.
The program was removed from the school’s curriculum the following year.
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