Teacher Disciplined for Black Lives Matter Flag Sues Duval County Public Schools for Retaliation, Right to Free Speechby Greater Diversity News April 16, 2021
DUVAL COUNTY, Fla. – Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and private employment law firm Scott • Wagner and Associates, P.A., sued Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) on behalf of a teacher at Robert E. Lee High School who was banned from teaching and the school, then reassigned to administrative duties last month after displaying a Black Lives Matter flag above her classroom door.
The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, describes how the school district stripped 13-year veteran educator Amy Donofrio of her teaching role in retaliation for displaying the flag over school administrators’ objections. She has also been outspoken about racist comments made at recent public meetings about renaming the school, which is named after an avowed white supremacist and former owner of enslaved people. She is suing the school district and former principal supervisor Scott Schneider for its relentless retaliation and violation of her rights to free speech and expression.
“I hope this case will set a needed precedent. 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,” said Ms. Donofrio. “To our Black students, we see you, we stand with you, and you matter.”
Last year, Ms. Donofrio placed the Black Lives Matter 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 Black Lives Matter flag brought them comfort, especially in a school named after a confederate general and because they had experienced racism in their own lives.
After Ms. Donofrio spoke out against the hate speech at community meetings about the name change, the school ordered her to take down the Black Lives Matter flag hung outside her classroom door. When she refused, noting that she had violated no policy, the school administration forcibly removed the flag and administratively reassigned her to non-teaching duties, pending an investigation into “allegations of potential misconduct” that the district has not defined. She has not been allowed to teach or enter the school since March 25, 2021.
This was not the first time Ms. Donofrio spoke up in support of her Black students at Lee High School. 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 their personal lives. In response, she and her students co-designed a curriculum to help meet their social, emotional and academic needs. Because so many of Ms. Donofrio’s 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,” which quickly grew into a movement to shift false and racist stereotypes about Black boys.
Following the district’s discipline, her students started a petition demanding the school “Bring Back Ms. Donofrio.” The author of the petition, 17-year-old Jayla Caldwell, a senior at Lee High School said: “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. She has always advocated for racial equality and social justice since before I even entered high school. Ms. Donofrio was the light in the darkness for so many students.”
“I am asking anyone reading this to have a heart and fight for us to bring our light at the end of the tunnel back to our school,” Caldwell pleaded in the petition, which currently has over 15,000 signatures.
The lawsuit seeks to reinstate Ms. Donofrio to her teaching position. It also requests a court order banning school policies that prevent educators from exercising their First Amendment rights by supporting Black Lives Matter and by advocating for anti-racist curricula and policies.
Last week, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, issued a statement declaring racism “a serious public health threat.” In a poll released last year by the SPLC, 70% of adults across the nation and various demographic groups said they supported “anti-racist education” as a policy to reduce and prevent hate and extremism.
The lawsuit comes as schools and school districts across the country are cracking down on educators who address important social and racial issues in their classrooms. Last year, a school district in Nevada banned teachers from supporting Black Lives Matter. After a parent in Oregon complained about a teacher wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt on social media, the school district released guidelines allowing for teachers to do so.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.