June 21, 2021

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A teacher hangs a BLM flag at a school named for a Confederate general. Now she’s under investigation.

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Long before George Floyd was killed – and many Americans turned a serious eye toward acknowledging, understanding and even uprooting systemic racism – English high school teacher Amy Donofrio was encouraging her students in Jacksonville, Florida to push for equality and empowerment, for justice and personal achievement.

She wanted them to dream and thrive, and she developed an interpersonal road map to assist them in reaching their destiny – be it helping them apply to colleges, decide on a trade or meet with recruiters and enlist in the military. 

As an educator at Robert E. Lee High School (we’ll get to that abomination in a moment), where the student body is 70% Black, Donofrio also wanted to offer a safe space for her students where they could talk openly about race, where they knew their opinions were valued and their voices mattered. 

“We are 90 miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed,” Donofrio told me this week. “We have been able to have discussions about him and George Floyd in our class. And it was the first time any students in the class have ever been allowed to talk about it in school. 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.”

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Amy Donofrio records her students as they find out their group, EVAC Movement, was named winner of a national kindness challenge in a file photo from 2017.

Amy Donofrio records her students as they find out their group, EVAC Movement, was named winner of a national kindness challenge in a file photo from 2017.
Bruce Lipsky

So above her classroom door, serving as a beacon of tolerance, Donofrio draped a Black Lives Matter flag in October 2020. Within the same week, she was asked to remove the flag. The assistant principal said no complaints had been received, but they – the principal was copied on the email – were concerned it might cause problems. Donofrio asked the administration to produce a school policy that prohibited the flag. They were unable to provide any, and the flag stayed up, along with two others she had inside her classroom.

“It has always been about listening to their stories and being responsive, compassionate and humane towards them,” she said of her students. “As things got more intense, I wanted them to know that they are safe in here, that their community is honored and this is a haven. What I wanted them to do is to be able to walk into my classroom and breathe, like just let out a breath. That was the goal. And that’s what every student deserves. There’s nothing political about that.”

But it turns out, at Robert E. Lee High School, everything about that is political.

From 'at risk' to 'at hope'

Donofrio, 34, who has been teaching for 13 years, co-founded an organization at Robert E. Lee High School called the EVAC Movement. It was a student-propelled group that focused on reclassifying Black youth in Jacksonville from “at risk” to “at hope.” The goal was to empower them to channel painful personal tragedies into positive change.

Amy Donofrio offered her students at Robert E. Lee High School a safe space to talk openly about race, where they knew their opinions were valued and their voices mattered.

Amy Donofrio offered her students at Robert E. Lee High School a safe space to talk openly about race, where they knew their opinions were valued and their voices mattered.
Amy Donofrio

And did they.

They met with President Barack Obama in 2016; traveled numerous times to Harvard University to participate in a youth advisory board’s racial equity committee; and presented before the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention on Capitol Hill.

Donofrio helped open the world to these kids. She helped give them a seat at the table. She helped elevate their voices. She helped them reach for the stars. These are the life lessons and experiences that build future leaders – future Black leaders. 

But all of those accomplishments seemed to vanish last summer, when a student-driven petition to change the school’s name gained traction. Duval County Public Schools officials couldn’t ignore the groundswell – both locally and nationwide – and pledged to host public discourse about the matter.   

Five community meetings were held in March. Donofrio characterized them as painful, so much that she filed a formal complaint with a school board member stating that she thought the meetings were racially abusive and traumatizing to the students. She added that she was very concerned because the school is ultimately responsible for their welfare. 

“The racism and hatefulness got progressively more empowered as the meetings went on, and they went really unchecked in their moderation,” Donofrio told me. “And they were happening in our auditorium.

“This is just a continued pattern at our school and in our atmosphere, which is the reason why that flag was so important, because it signaled a safe space in what has often been a very hostile environment,” she said.

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In recent weeks, community members have cast ballots on whether the name of Robert E. Lee High School and eight other Duval County schools should be renamed. The votes aren’t binding, but will be used to inform Superintendent Diana Greene when she makes a recommendation to the school board. The board is expected to vote during a June 1 meeting.   

'Nothing short of absolute living history'

After the second-to-last school renaming meeting, which Donofrio attended, the flag was removed she believes – by someone in the school administration. She had gone to her car after the meeting, which was after school hours, and when she returned it was gone. 

The next day, Donofrio was informed she was being removed from teaching duties while under investigation for potential school board policy misconduct. Now she sits in a warehouse in an industrial park most days, stripped of any contact with students. It’s formally called disciplinary surplus, but known as “teacher jail.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center and private employment law firm Scott Wagner and Associates, P.A. have sued the district on Donofrio’s behalf. The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, alleges the flag’s removal without Donofrio’s consent was a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“As teachers, you’re teaching tolerance,” said Cathleen Scott, a managing partner and founder of Scott Wagner and Associates. “Teachers have been teaching character and individual development for centuries with students. What is wrong with teaching tolerance? What is wrong with saying Black lives, students’ lives matter? How is that anything other than what a teacher ought to be doing? What’s the more important goal than students here?”

A wall and bulletin board in Amy Donofrio's classroom are covered with supportive messages and images, including one of her students meeting with President Barack Obama in 2016.

A wall and bulletin board in Amy Donofrio’s classroom are covered with supportive messages and images, including one of her students meeting with President Barack Obama in 2016.
Amy Donofrio

Bacardi Jackson, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, added: “I don’t know what purpose our schools would serve if we cannot even acknowledge or talk about one of the greatest movements in our history. The impact that has been felt by the murder of George Floyd around the entire globe is nothing short of absolute living history.”

Because Donofrio is not allowed to have contact with students, she did not attend prom this month. And on May 25, the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, she’s not even certain she will be permitted to attend graduation and watch her seniors accomplish a goal she helped them achieve.

“This has all been devastating for me, personally,” Donofrio told me, her voice cracking. “But the part that crushes me in the middle of the night while I’m crying are the implications of what this means for the kids. This is sending a horrific message to my kids.”

This white woman, an educator who has committed her life to making a positive mark on future generations, is being punished because she had the audacity to believe and declare – via a flag – that the lives of her Black students matter.  

Let that travesty sink in.

National columnist Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at shackney@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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