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Florida teacher’s license could be revoked after she supported Black Lives Matter and the changing of school’s name

Originally Published: 13 JUN 24 06:17 ET

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

Outside the room where she taught English to mostly Black students at the former Robert E. Lee High School she had placed a sign that read, “Hate Has No Home Here,” according to an April order by an administrative law judge who recommended Donofrio receive a written reprimand after state officials accused the teacher of bringing her personal views into the classroom.

“Ms. Donofrio was a pillar for us,” former student Diamond Wallace, 24, told CNN this week. “She acted as a rock for us and she was more like a mom, like a second mom to all of us students.”

At the start of the 2020 school year, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Donofrio, who is White, put up a large “Black Lives Matter” banner outside her classroom. She had displayed a BLM sign and t-shirt in her classroom as early as 2018, according to findings in the administrative judge’s recommendation.

Administrators asked her to remove it, and expressed concern the display 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 – about five months after she was first asked to bring it down. A day later Donofrio was reassigned to a work at a district warehouse.

School officials had also voiced concerns that Donofrio displayed face masks in her classroom that read, “Robert E. Lee was a gang member” – which they considered to be an expression of her personal view. At the time the school district was in the process of renaming six schools named for Confederate generals. Donofrio denied the masks – which were common during the pandemic – were on display. She said the logo “I am not a gang member” was a phrase students use as part of their advocacy of racial justice, according to the administrative judge’s findings.

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

The hearing was prompted by administrative law judge Suzanne Van Wyk’s April recommendation that Donofrio receive a written reprimand for wearing and displaying the Robert E. Lee masks which she said violated the school policy that teachers remain neutral on politically charged issues such as the school renaming and mask-wearing.

Van Wyk’s order noted in part that the “offense was not severe” and 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 her findings.

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

“I’m not doing the thing that I was born to do, that I loved more than anything and I’m having to fight to get it back,” Donofrio, who taught at the school for nine years but has not been allowed back in a Florida classroom since 2021, told CNN.

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

School administrators didn’t 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 front lines in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ culture wars, which have taken aim at every aspect of education from formal classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity to what public schools teach about racism and American history to what books students can read and what bathrooms they can use.

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

‘I’m a passionate, quality teacher’

In 2021, the BLM banner hanging over Donofrio’s classroom door, as well as her outspokenness on racial justice, became a political flash point across the state. Her advocacy of racial justice was brought up in discussions about whether the school should abandon its Confederate namesake. The school was renamed Riverside High School in June 2021.

Days before the banner was taken down, the district published a memo that stated “employees are not permitted to display flags, banners or other signage representing a particular social cause or 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 administrative judge’s recommended order.

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

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

Donofrio was not fired even as she defied multiple requests from school officials to take down the flag. She also challenged the district on its treatment of Black students and staff.

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

“I wasn’t removed for anything having to do with my teaching,” Donofrio said. “No one has ever been able to say anything. Nor of my test scores, right, reflected anything but that I’m a passionate, quality teacher.”

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

“I really thought that things were kind of moving forward and then suddenly, we turned human compassion into something that’s controversial,” Donofrio said.

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

“For her to be able to make teenagers feel comfortable enough to come in her classroom and express the trauma that they have gone through voluntarily, that’s a gift,” said Wallace’s mother, Renita Turner.

Donofrio and her students earned national attention, and the course eventually became 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 when he visited Jacksonville.

“It is honestly the most beautiful thing I have ever been a part of,” Donofrio recalled this week, referring to the EVAC movement and the attention it garnered for her students.

“Teachers have gathered to swing back in the name of teaching honest history, teaching honestly to their students,” said Donofrio’s lawyer, Mark Richard. “We do not want to be caught in these culture wars.”

Donofrio added, “My students matter, teachers who care about students matter … I have no doubt that with or without me, they’re going to change the world.”

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

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