Amy Donofrio, a teacher for Duval County Public Schools, is suing the school district and its regional superintendent for allegedly retaliating against her "for her protected speech, her complaints about discrimination, and, more broadly, her support of Black students' lives."
CNN  — 

After the murder of George Floyd and the summer of protests that followed led to greater dialogue among her students, Amy Donofrio decided last fall to hang up a “Black Lives Matter” banner outside her classroom.

Most of the students at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida – where she had taught for nine years – were Black. And Donofrio, who is White, wanted them to feel supported.

“I just wanted to make it clear to my students that when they walk into my room, they can feel safe,” she told CNN. “They can let out a breath. They can know that they matter.”

But the flag, as well as Donofrio’s outspokenness on racial justice, would come to be a political flash point that reverberated across the state. It was brought up in discussions about whether the school should abandon its Confederate namesake, and cited by Florida’s education commissioner as an example of “indoctrination” and “critical race theory” in schools – even though the discipline was not part of Donofrio’s curriculum.

Over the course of several months, Donofrio defied requests from school officials to take down the flag and challenged the district on its treatment of Black students and staff, according to a federal complaint filed in April.

The situation boiled over in March, leading administrators to have the flag removed. Days later, Donofrio was reassigned to non-teaching duties and the district said it had opened a “human resources matter to review allegations of potential misconduct” against her.

Duval County Public Schools declined to answer specific questions regarding those incidents, citing an ongoing internal investigation and open litigation.

Now, Donofrio – with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Scott Wagner and Associates, P.A. representing her – is suing Duval County Public Schools and its regional high school superintendent, alleging that the district retaliated against her “for her protected speech, her complaints about discrimination, and, more broadly, her support of Black students’ lives.”

Tensions were simmering for a while

Even before Donofrio put the Black Lives Matter flag above her classroom door, tensions between her and the school district were brewing, according to the complaint.

Donofrio had for several years led a course aimed at empowering Black students through professional development, college preparation and civic engagement. She and her students earned national attention, and the course eventually became the organization known as the EVAC Movement.

Despite the course’s success, Donofrio accused school administrators of being unsupportive behind the scenes. The complaint says they canceled the class and eventually relegated it to a school activity, citing budget cuts. The complaint also alleges that her students experienced “racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation” over the years at the hands of the school district.

Amy Donofrio told CNN she wanted her classroom to be a safe space where Black students felt supported and free to speak openly about issues of race.

In October 2020, as communities across the nation continued to reckon with systemic racism, Donofrio put up the Black Lives Matter flag above her classroom door.

It was one of several similar signs posted in and around her classroom, the complaint said, intended to signal to students that they were in a safe space where they could be open about their experiences and discuss issues of race.

An assistant principal asked her at the time to remove the flag over concerns that it potentially violated district policy, the complaint said. When Donofrio asked for specifics, the complaint said, she was pointed to policies concerning student expression and vendors – because she didn’t receive further clarification, she considered the issue dropped.

The flag remained for several months.

Then she spoke out publicly about racism

The flag issue again became a point of contention earlier this year, as the district started holding public meetings on whether Robert E. Lee High School should be renamed.

The discussion at those meetings grew increasingly heated, with opponents of the renaming effort making controversial statements such as “Jesus himself was never against slavery” and “You can’t cancel history.”

Donofrio expressed concerns to a school board member in March that the manner in which the district was considering whether to rename Robert E. Lee High School was negatively affecting Black and brown students, while providing White community members a platform to make racist comments, according to the complaint.

Soon after, a video she had posted to social media compiling some of the offensive statements made by community members went viral, and one man depicted in the clip contacted the school district to object against the Black Lives Matter flag outside Donofrio’s classroom, according to the complaint.

School administrators then ordered her again to remove the flag, the complaint said, pointing to a policy from December 2020 that defined Black Lives Matter as a “social movement” and states “employees are not permitted to display flags, banners or other signage representing a particular social cause or movement that may be interpreted as District speech,” according to a photo of the policy in the complaint.

When Donofrio did not comply, the flag was taken down and she was subsequently reassigned.

Duval County Public Schools confirmed that Donofrio had been “reassigned to paid, non-teaching duties” as of March 25, pending a human resources review.

“The district has opened a human resources matter to review allegations of potential misconduct under school board policy and the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida,” Duval County Public Schools said in a statement.

“The presumption of innocence applies; however, Ms. Donofrio has been removed from school and classroom duties while the matter is reviewed.”

But Donofrio’s lawyers argue that the school district took her off of teaching duties only after she spoke publicly about the comments made during the school renaming meetings, alleging it was a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“The retaliation came after she made comments on her Facebook page about matters of public importance,” Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney for children’s rights with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told CNN.

“That’s not something the school is allowed to do, both under federal law and the state law. So, she has been retaliated against both for her speech as well as for complaining about discrimination against Black students.”

It comes as the GOP is attempting to ban education on race

The lawsuit filed by Donofrio comes as Republican officials across the country are attempting to ban “critical race theory” – which has become a catch-all for any type of education involving race – in public schools.

Similar efforts are taking place in Florida, where Donofrio taught.

The state’s education commissioner Richard Corcoran recently announced a proposal to prohibit teachers from expressing personal views or attempting to “indoctrinate or persuade students” to perspectives inconsistent with the state’s learning standards.

Corcoran mentioned the lawsuit filed by Donofrio as an example of how liberal ideas had made their way into curricula and classrooms, falsely stating that she had been fired.

“I’m getting sued right now in Duval County, which is in Jacksonville, because there was an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter,” he said at an event in May for Hillsdale College in Michigan. “We made sure she was terminated and now we’re being sued by every one of the liberal left groups for freedom of speech issues.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center fired back in a statement, saying Corcoran’s remarks amounted to a violation of Donofrio’s free speech rights.

“According to Corcoran, a classroom that teaches Black Lives Matter or what Corcoran has labeled ‘crazy liberal stuff’ justifies censorship and the firing of teachers,” the organization said.

But for Jackson, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, the attacks are unsurprising.

“This is history that we have seen repeated over and over again when there becomes a movement to try to stop and quell movements towards freedom,” Jackson told CNN.

“That’s what’s been happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the statements about race and people trying to understand the systematic and structural barriers. The backlash has been pretty vicious.”