Florida Republicans terrorized a teacher because of a Black Lives Matter flag. She hit back and won

"I feel vindicated but I also feel sad," Amy Donofrio said after a judge ruled her BLM banner broke no school rules

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 19, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Amy Donofrio in front of Robert E. Lee High School (Photo courtesy of the EVAC movement)
Amy Donofrio in front of Robert E. Lee High School (Photo courtesy of the EVAC movement)

"Jesus himself never condemned slavery," one Florida man said to defend the honor of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee during a March 2021 school board meeting in Jacksonville. "In fact, he said, slaves have an obligation to obey their master," the outraged white man insisted.

A crowd had pounced to keep the students of Robert E. Lee High School, 70% of whom are Black, from changing the name to something less Confederacy-honoring. 

"I was taught that the chiefs of the tribes in Africa sold their people into slavery," an angry white woman said as the white people behind her nodded vigorously. "So don't blame Robert E. Lee. Maybe you should be after your ancestors."

Alarmed by what she was hearing, Amy Donofrio decided to do something. She was a teacher at the school, located in Duval County, which has since been renamed Riverside High School. She knew how sentiments like the ones shared at the school board meeting made her students feel. "Students made it clear that they were dealing with a lot," Donofrio told Salon. "They were walking into our schools facing racism, frankly, from every corner."

Years before, Donofrio had helped her students start a group called EVAC Movement. Once invited to speak at the White House with then-President Barack Obama, by 2021, students in the group were eager to strip their school of a name honoring a Confederate general who personally held over 200 people in slavery

Jacksonville, Florida protest against changing the name of Robert E. Lee High SchoolJacksonville, Florida protest against changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School (Photo courtesy of Amy Donofrio)So Donofrio took photos and videos from the school board meeting, including another one of a man asking, "If this high school is having problems, how long has it been predominantly African-American?" And she expressed concerns to the administration that such comments hurt her students. She would soon be removed from her classroom, publicly targeted by the Republican state government under Gov. Ron DeSantis, eventually fired, and threatened with having her teaching license stripped entirely. 

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But while Donofrio's life has been chaos in the years since the DeSantis administration made her a target in their "war on woke," she eventually prevailed. A Florida administrative judge just ruled in Donofrio's favor regarding the dispute that created the pretext to harass her: a Black Lives Matter flag she hung in her classroom. 

Donofrio had been hanging the flag for some time before the school board meeting. "Especially as a white woman," she told Salon, it was important to let students "know that they're cared about." The flag, she said, was a simple way to make them "feel safe" so they could "get an education." Administrators had been complaining to her about it but had no policy to point to in order to justify taking it down. However, after the school board meeting, the pressure on Donofrio intensified. Pointing to a new policy barring teachers from trying "to influence students to support or oppose any candidate, party or issue," the administration ordered the flag removed. When she refused, they took it down for her and pulled her out of the classroom, while they investigated whether she had violated school rules. 

The situation quickly escalated. A petition in support of Donofrio circulated by students quickly amassed thousands of signatures and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the district on her behalf. But the DeSantis administration was determined to make Donofrio the face of "woke" teachers their administration was stirring up fear and hatred towards. In May of 2021, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran singled out Donofrio during a speech at Hillsdale College, which, as Kathryn Joyce has reported for Salon, is the epicenter of the Christian right's assault on public education. Complaining about "an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter," Corcoran falsely declared, "We made sure she was terminated." In truth, Donofrio still had her job but was "assigned to paid, non-teaching duties," according to the school district's official statement. Before the summer was over, however, the school board filled Corcoran's wish, firing Donofrio and settling her lawsuit out of court. Still that was not the end of her woes. Within days of her firing, the state opened another investigation, this time into whether Donofrio's teacher's license should be revoked entirely. 

Donofrio feels she was targeted in order to create "an environment of fear" for teachers across Florida. DeSantis was soon promoting a series of policies, such as the "don't say gay" law and the "stop woke" act aimed at prohibiting discussions of racism and sexual diversity that Republicans claimed was inappropriate for public school students. Critics of these bills pointed out that the language about what is and isn't allowed was vague, which Donofrio argues was on purpose. "If somebody high up doesn't like you or disagrees with, you watch out," she said. "The repercussions can stretch into a lot of different parts of your life."

DeSantis, for his part, denied that the bills were meant to lead to widespread book banning, harassment of LGBTQ teachers or students, or the end of teaching about segregation or slavery in history classes. But that is exactly what happened in much of the state. Educational programs about the civil rights movement were canceled. Teachers were forced to lock up their entire classroom library. Books about slavery, the Holocaust, and even 9/11 were banned. Even the dictionary was banned in one school district. The bans and harassment spread to other states. A 2022 analysis from the Washington Post found that Donofrio was not alone: Over 160 teachers were driven out of their jobs by Republican-led attacks on public education. 

All of these machinations helped DeSantis raise his national profile as a right-wing culture warrior but did not help him win the Republican presidential nomination. Despite spending $160 million to defeat Donald Trump, the Florida governor only got 21% of the Iowa caucus votes, and quit the race shortly thereafter. His "war on woke" turned out to be so impractical that he ended up signing another bill in April limiting non-parents to one challenge per month. 

Donofrio, meanwhile, was still fighting to keep her teaching license. Finally, she got a hearing before an administration judge in February and a decision in April. The judge ruled for Donofrio on the issue of the Black Lives Matter flag. Donofrio's "intent to affirm and support her students was clear, and she had a successful history of promoting the physical and emotional well-being of her minority students," the judge wrote. Instead, the judge noted "the School environment became hostile after administration removed the flag," because the principal "had to work hard, meeting with students and making extra efforts to assure students that he supported them and that their lives did indeed matter to him." In June, the final hearing was held, and the DeSantis government lost again: Donofrio's teaching license remains intact. 

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"I feel vindicated, but I also feel sad," Donofrio told Salon. Sad, she explained, because "a lot of teachers have been leaving Florida and quitting schools in Florida because of all of this."

"I think our kids here are worth fighting for," she added, noting that ultimately, teachers alone cannot solve this problem. "We can't just encourage teachers to stand up and stand with our kids without giving them the resources to do it and survive."

Donofrio isn't sure what's next for her. She hasn't gotten her job back at the now-Riverside High School. Still, she said, she's feeling "hopeful" after this legal victory. "I also want teachers to look at the case," she said, "and realize if you stand up for what's right, you can win too. It is possible."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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