Inside the door to Amy Donofrio’s classroom, Black students felt safe.
It was not always that way anywhere else at Robert E. Lee High School. Named after the commander of the Confederate Army who was a slaveholder and white supremacist, the school in Jacksonville, Florida, was segregated until 1971. Its sports teams are called the Generals. And while today 72% of its 1,600 students are Black, its school colors, chosen by white school leaders of another era, remain the blue and gray of the Confederacy.
But in the classroom of beloved teacher Donofrio, Black students could shut out the vitriol, racism and anxiety that pervaded their lives.
There, Donofrio’s students – largely Black, economically disadvantaged, juggling school and jobs and sometimes scarred by violence in their communities – formed a family of sorts. They came to believe in the white teacher who had their backs.
What started as a life skills class for Black youth evolved into a dialectic on empowerment, racial justice and human rights – and eventually into a movement that lifted the students and Donofrio to a meeting with then-President Barack Obama and honors at Harvard University. By their actions and through their journey, the students reframed their sense of the possible. They came to believe in their own worth.
Against all that, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) banner tacked up outside the door to her classroom last fall seemed relatively benign, a simple statement of the fact and belief that underlay everything Donofrio taught.
But in March, a white alumnus, whose racially insensitive remarks at a school district meeting had gone viral through a social media post by Donofrio, complained about the banner. Over the pleas of Donofrio and her students, school authorities took it down. The school district contends the banner violated district policy, even though it had been hanging outside her door for months.
Donofrio says it was a statement of human rights.
“I was devastated, and I was enraged because I couldn’t understand how on earth any institution that is here to ensure the safety and well-being of our children could go up and remove a symbol of their safety and well-being,” Donofrio said. “I wanted students to be able to walk into my classroom and feel that they could breathe. And that’s what that flag did. It told them that they could let their guard down, at least in this one space, in this school named after a Confederate leader. I wanted them to know without a doubt that this was a safe space for them.”
A day after the school principal took down the flag, Donofrio was taken out of the classroom, banned from school grounds and told to report daily to a sort of “teacher jail” where she was assigned to non-teaching duties in a school district warehouse. Her students, many on the cusp of graduation, were cut off from the teacher who helped them fill out college application forms, instructed them how to seek financial aid and wept with them last year when a former student at Lee was gunned down by police.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and its co-counsel, Scott Wagner and Associates, P.A., filed a federal lawsuit last month to uphold the rights of Donofrio and her students, including the right to express their support for Black Lives Matter. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, alleges that the removal of the flag violated Donofrio’s First Amendment rights, as well as other legal protections. It names as defendants the Duval County Public School District and Scott Schneider, high school regional superintendent and former school principal.
“This is part of the broader set of actions we’ve seen taken across this country to punish teachers who have taken an anti-racist stand in their classes, in their schools, who have complained about curriculum, and who have tried to create safe spaces for their students,” said Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office and senior supervising attorney for its Children’s Rights Practice Group.
With the BLM movement that emerged in reaction to the killing of Black men and women at the hands of police evolving into the most significant racial reckoning in the U.S. since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it is fundamental that educators and students be free to have “those really tough conversations,” Jackson said.
“Without ensuring that they are supported in having those conversations, we are chipping away at democracy,” Jackson said. “If we can’t have these conversations in our public schools, where can we have them?”
Apparently in Robert E. Lee High School the answer is, not here.
Donofrio did not know her work with the students would come to this – she sitting in a building across town unable to reach out to them, students bewildered, distressed and, in some cases, scared.
She said she “was in shock” upon noticing that the banner had been taken down. It was part of a campaign by school authorities to diminish the achievements of her students and their social justice movement.
Plato and the cave
The diminutive teacher of 34 came to Lee nine years ago. She was four years into her teaching career, seeking warm weather and eager to teach at a school where she felt she could make a difference. Lee, where 94% of students are economically disadvantaged, according to state and federal education department metrics, seemed a fit.
Donofrio said she considered herself politically conservative back then and had no close relationships with students impacted by violence and racism. But as she took on a class originally designed to give students life skills, she said the students started changing her, teaching her as much about their lives as she was teaching them.
Inspired by the masterpiece of Greek philosopher Plato, The Republic, particularly its famous “The Allegory of the Cave,” Donofrio introduced her students to the philosopher’s image of people in a cave, chained since childhood, facing away from the light. The philosopher taught that if just one incarcerated person were to get used to the light, he could, with perseverance, find his way out of the cave. And it’s the responsibility of the liberated to return to the cave to help others. In that way, as Donofrio and her students interpreted the allegory, the liberated bring hope and awareness to themselves. They also have the responsibility to bring that awareness and hope to their community.
The allegory may have seemed far removed from all Donofrio’s students knew, this work of an ancient philosopher in the classical canon. But inside Donofrio’s welcoming classroom door, the allegory became a powerful guiding force. With Donofrio’s encouragement, students shared the traumas of their lives, literally bringing them into the light. Soon the class evolved into a citywide movement they called EVAC – “cave” spelled backward.
Jayla Caldwell, 18, is a senior who had Donofrio as a teacher in the tenth grade. This spring, after Donofrio was removed, Caldwell organized a petition demanding her reinstatement. It has been signed by more than 17,000 people.
In Donofrio’s class, Caldwell spoke about difficult experiences that had deeply marked her young life.
“Ever since then, I felt like I could tell her anything,” Caldwell said. “I love that woman.”
That kind of devotion and mutual respect between students and their teacher took the young people far. In 2016, students in the class traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice. They testified on Capitol Hill. They met with Obama. They were honored by Harvard University, and their evolution became the subject of a TEDx talk.
The racial reckoning
While Donofrio’s students like Caldwell were finding their voices, the turmoil of racial reckoning that has swept the country was beginning to shake the school. Communities across the U.S. began taking down Confederate monuments, and high schools and colleges, both public and private, began changing names of institutions and buildings that for years honored enslavers and white supremacists.
At Lee, the growing success and national recognition Donofrio and her students garnered started to become a flashpoint. A year after they met Obama, school officials told Donofrio they would be canceling the class due to “funding concerns.” Donofrio publicized the news of the cancellation on social media. But the school did not relent.
Meanwhile, questions about the appropriateness of the school’s name grew. In recent months, a series of community meetings about a proposal to change the name have turned bitter, with parents and alumni facing off with students and supporters.
Bringing her phone into the public meetings in defiance of district officials’ admonition against recording, Donofrio posted them on Facebook. The footage showed a crowd of largely white adults pushing back bitterly against students speaking in support of the name change. According to the legal complaint filed by the SPLC, the footage shows one white alumnus saying “Jesus was never against slavery. In fact, he said slaves have an obligation to obey their masters!” Another said, according to the complaint, “If you think this high school is having problems, how long has it been African American?”
The footage was shared more than 500,000 times on social media and Donofrio made a formal complaint to a Duval County School Board member about the failure of the school district to intervene and stop the anti-Black hate speech that was occurring in the presence of Black students at the public meetings. Within days, a man who had voiced one of the questionable comments at the meeting complained to school officials about Donofrio and the BLM banner. It was only then that the school district demanded that she remove the banner and, for the first time, produced written guidance that prohibited teachers from certain kinds of speech.
The school district says that as a public employee, Donofrio speaks for the government, not herself. That would mean that her speech, in the form of the banner, could be deemed disruptive to the government’s interests in the workplace.
In her suit, Donofrio says that school staff’s rights to free speech are protected by the First Amendment. Under a Florida statute, school districts need written consent to infringe on those rights. She also contends that the school district, far from celebrating the achievements of her students, has sought to undermine them. First, the school canceled the EVAC class, assigning Donofrio to teach English literature and forcing the EVAC movement to disassociate from the school. Then, Donofrio was prohibited from using non-teaching days to take the students on field trips. And when the student group traveled to receive the national honors, the school district did not fund the travel.
Now, as the legal case moves slowly forward, the lives of the students and of Donofrio are upended.
Her school-issued laptop confiscated, the teacher drives across town every school day to a dingy school district warehouse. Alone but for a dozen or so other teachers facing disciplinary proceedings, she sits for seven hours a day.
Last week, she was led to believe that she had been fired based on a speech by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. In the speech posted on a YouTube video by Hillsdale College in Michigan, where Corcoran gave the address, he said that “we made sure she was terminated” as part of his effort to keep teachers from “indoctrinating” students with critical race theory, according to news reports.
But after the SPLC contacted school officials, a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said Corcoran used the word “terminated” in reference to Donofrio’s reassignment from classroom duties. Donofrio remains in a paid, non-teaching position with Duval County Public Schools.
At the warehouse, she spends her time worrying about her students, she says, wondering how they are doing and who is marking their birthdays without the cakes she used to bake for each of them. On her darkest days, she said, Donofrio worries whether they will graduate or become statistics in a city whose rates of murder and incarceration, especially among Black people, are soaring.
Recently, Donofrio said, she ran into a student with whom she had been close. Bewildered, the student, who had hoped to apply to the U.S. Coast Guard with Donofrio’s help, pleaded with her to come back.
The encounter – and the helplessness she felt – left her in tears.
“I don’t understand the type of cruelty and dehumanization it takes to use children and their well-being as disposable, as pawns,” Donofrio said. “I will never understand it. It makes me realize how evil the system is. That’s why we have to change it – because we are literally destroying kids.”
Donofrio says she sometimes comforts herself by imagining the windowless room in the warehouse she is relegated to as a cave. Her students, and all they have taught her about human nature, she says, are the outside light.
“This is not an isolated incident. This is happening to teachers across the U.S.,” SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Evian White De Leon said. “And it’s not just about the teachers, it’s about the students and the chilling effect that these schools are having on their right to a quality education and a safe learning environment.”
To learn more about Donofrio and her students’ movement, click here.
To sign the petition for Donofrio’s reinstatement, click here.
Photo at top by Evac Movement: Teacher Amy Donofrio stands outside Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida.