Florida Teacher Amy Donofrio’s License May Be Revoked After She Supports Black Lives Matter and Changes School Name



CNN

Amy Donofrio was a beloved and highly regarded high school teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, where she sought for years to empower students and advocate for racial justice.

Outside the room where she taught English to predominantly black students at the former Robert E. Lee High School, she placed a sign reading “Hate has no home here,” according to an order in April from an administrative judge who recommended that Donofrio receive a written reprimand after state officials accused the teacher of expressing her personal opinions in class.

“MS. Donofrio was a pillar for us,” former student Diamond Wallace, 24, told CNN this week. “She was like a rock for us and she was more of a mother, a second mother to all of our students »

At the start of the 2020 school year, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Donofrio, who is white, displayed a large “Black Lives Matter” banner in front of her class. She had displayed a BLM sign and a t-shirt in her class as early as 2018, according to the conclusions of the administrative judge’s recommendation.

Administrators asked him to remove it and expressed concern that the posting might violate school district policy. Donofrio refused. She said she believed the policy did not apply to the banner. On March 23, 2021, a school administrator removed the banner – approximately five months after she was first asked to remove it. A day later, Donofrio was reassigned to a job at a regional warehouse.

School officials had also expressed concerns that Donofrio had posted masks in his classroom that read, “Robert E. Lee was a gang member” — which they considered an expression of his personal point of view. At the time, the school district was in the process of renaming six schools named after Confederate generals. Donofrio denied that masks – which were common during the pandemic – were on display. She said the “I’m not a gang member” logo was a phrase used by students as part of their advocacy for racial justice, according to the administrative office. the judge’s conclusions.

At a hearing Thursday, the Florida Commission on Educational Practices is expected to decide whether Donofrio will be disciplined for displaying Robert E. Lee’s masks, as well as for wearing one herself at a community meeting, in support to changing the name of the formerly segregated school.

The hearing was prompted by Administrative Judge Suzanne Van Wyk’s April recommendation that Donofrio receive a written reprimand for wearing and displaying the Robert E. Lee masks that she said violated the school’s policy that Teachers remain neutral on politically charged issues such as changing the school name and wearing masks.

Van Wyk’s order said in part that “the offense was not serious” and that there was no danger or harm to the public or students. The judge determined there was no evidence that Donofrio “failed to distinguish between her personal views and those of the school or district” when she displayed the Black Lives Matter banner or that it went against district policy, according to his findings.

The Commission on Educational Practices’ five-person panel — a law enforcement member, a parent and three teachers — will have the final say and could revoke his teaching license. The quasi-judicial state agency imposes discipline on teachers and school administrators.

“I’m not doing what I was born to do, which I love more than anything and I have to fight to get it back,” said Donofrio, who taught at the school for nine years but was not allowed to return. in a Florida classroom since 2021, told CNN.

She added: “School is supposed to be a safe place for students. It’s about them.

Florida education officials did not respond to CNN’s request for comment ahead of the hearing.

Donofrio’s future as a teacher will be decided at a time when Florida’s classrooms have become the front lines of government. Ron DeSantis’ culture wars, which have targeted every aspect of education, from formal classroom teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity to public schools teaching about racism and American history, to the books students can read and the toilets they can use.

“Our school system should be about educating children, not indoctrinating them,” DeSantis told reporters in May 2023.

In 2021, the BLM banner hanging on Donofrio’s classroom door, along with his outspoken support for racial justice, became a political flashpoint across the state. His advocacy for racial justice came up during discussions about whether the school should abandon its Confederate namesake. The school was renamed Riverside High School in June. 2021.

Days before the banner’s removal, the district issued a memo stating that “employees are not permitted to display flags, banners or other signs representing a particular cause or social movement in a manner that may be interpreted as district speech,” and identified “Black Lives Matter” as “an expression of support for a social justice movement,” according to the order recommended by the administrative law judge.

Florida’s former education commissioner called it an example of “indoctrination” and “critical race theory” in schools — even though discipline was not part of Donofrio’s curriculum.

“There was an entire classroom dedicated to Black Lives Matter,” former commissioner Richard Corcoran told reporters at the time. “We made sure she was fired.”

Donofrio was not fired even though she defied multiple demands from school officials to remove the flag. She also took issue with the district’s treatment of black students and staff.

Edward Kerns II/MediaPunch/AP

The school in Jacksonville, Florida, formerly named Robert E. Lee High School, is seen in this August 2020 file photo.

His students responded by collecting nearly 18,000 signatures on a public petition calling for his return.

“I wasn’t expelled for anything related to my teaching,” Donofrio said. “No one was ever able to say anything. Nor did my test scores, it’s true, reflect anything other than the fact that I am a passionate and quality teacher.

Donofrio ultimately sued Duval County Public Schools and her high school’s regional superintendent in federal court, alleging the district retaliated against her “for her protected speech, discrimination complaints and, more broadly, her support to the lives of Black students,” according to a lawsuit filed in April 2021. The school board paid $300,000 to settle the lawsuit in 2021, according to CNN affiliate WJXT.

“I really thought things were moving forward and then all of a sudden we turned human compassion into something controversial,” Donofrio said.

Donofrio’s outspokenness on racial justice was not new. Even before flying the Black Lives Matter flag, she had led a course for several years aimed at empowering Black students through professional development, college preparation and civic engagement.

“For her to be able to make teenagers comfortable enough to come into her class and express the trauma that they’ve experienced voluntarily, that’s a gift,” said Wallace’s mother, Renita Turner.

Donofrio and his students gained national attention and the course eventually grew into the organization known as the EVAC Movement. Students traveled to the White House in 2016 and met with congressional leaders. Then-President Barack Obama met with them during his visit to Jacksonville.

“Honestly, it was the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Donofrio recalled this week, referring to the EVAC movement and the attention it garnered from his students.

“Teachers came together to return in the name of honestly teaching history, teaching their students honestly,” said Donofrio’s attorney, Mark Richard. “We don’t want to get caught up in these culture wars. »

Donofrio added: “My students matter, teachers who care about their students matter…I have no doubt that with or without me, they will change the world. »

CNN’s Ray Sanchez and Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.

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