Investigation Into DCPS Whistleblower Cites ‘Poor Judgment’ Around BLM Flag
An investigation into a Duval County Public Schools teacher terminated after displaying a Black Lives Matter flag found that the teacher engaged in poor judgment when it came to separating her personal beliefs from her professional responsibilities.
The teacher, Amy Donofrio, was removed from teaching duties in March after she refused to take down the Black Lives Matter flag from outside her classroom.
It’s a story that stretches from the years-long fight to strip Confederate generals’ names from Jacksonville schools to the debate over critical race theory in schools, and cuts to the heart of our ongoing argument over how schools should be teaching the messy, painful reality of race in America.
Donofrio taught English and Leadership classes at a school that was then called Robert E. Lee Senior High School and has since been renamed Riverside High School. The Riverside High student body is now about 70% Black.
She co-founded the EVAC Movement, a school group focused on helping students channel their personal tragedies — family members jailed, being detained by the police, being arrested, being shot at, needing to provide for the family while still in school — into positive change. According to its website, the group “met President Obama, testified on Capitol Hill, made the front page of The New York Times and won first place nationwide in a contest sponsored by Harvard.”
In response to their experiences of being arrested and accused of wearing gang paraphernalia, EVAC students created hoodies, hats and t-shirts that say, “I am not a gang member.”
Donofrio’s classroom was decorated with signs reading “I am hope,” “You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill a revolution,” and “Power to the People.” In October 2020, she hung a Black Lives Matter flag outside the classroom.
In February and March 2021, then-Lee High played host to a series of community meetings to discuss whether the school should be renamed .
The meetings were dramatic, with predominantly older, white alumni advocating for keeping the Confederate general’s name, and predominantly younger students and alumni, many of them people of color, advocating for its changing.
On March 23, the day after a community meeting in which a white alumnus’ remarks blaming the majority-Black student body for the school’s supposed decline went viral, school principal Timothy Feagins emailed Donofrio saying she needed to remove the Black Lives Matter flag that had been hanging outside her room since October 2020, or the janitorial staff would remove it for her.
Donofrio chose the latter.
That same day, she was removed from teaching duties and reassigned to Bull’s Bay, a DCPS warehouse known as “teacher jail.” An investigation into her conduct was opened March 24.
She sued the district over allegations of retaliation and violations of her right to free speech, which was resolved in a $300,000 settlement earlier this month. Her contract with the district was not renewed for the 2021-2022 school year.
The 248-page investigative report found that six of seven allegations into Donofrio were substantiated:
- She used poor judgment when she advocated a position with the students regarding the school name change process when she supplied them with facemasks that read “Robert E. Lee was a gang member.”
- She used poor judgment when she hung the Black Lives Matter flag outside her classroom and did not comply when she was directed on multiple occasions to take it down.
- She returned to school property after the flag was removed to hang a printed sign that stated “Lee admin took down the Black Lives Matter Sign last night.”
- She allowed an unauthorized visitor, a former Lee High teacher, into the building with her when she returned to hang up the sign.
- She told students that she would give extra credit for wearing “I am not a gang member” hoodies in yearbook photos and attending the name change meetings.
- She changed one student’s grade from an F to a B when he received extra credit for those activities.
A seventh allegation, that she helped students organize a protest following the removal of the flag, was not substantiated.
WJCT News has redacted the names of students in the report to protect their identities.
“The flag went up in October, but there was no policy against that in place by the investigation’s own admission until March 19,” Donofrio said. “By what standard was it poor judgment, because it wasn’t against policy. That’s a really concerning statement, that it’s poor judgment to hang a flag that validates students' lives at a time when there is zero policy against it.”
The district interviewed several of Donofrio’s students and asked them to provide written statements.
“She supported Black Lives Matter but she felt like the school was against her,” wrote one student in a handwritten statement dated April 8, 2021. “She offered extra credit to us if we would show up at the school meetings so we could share our voice and stand up for what’s right.”
“Masks are available at all times in the classroom but the ones that are being used is ‘Robert E. Lee was a gang member,’” wrote another student. “I don’t feel very comfortable with those because I feel our ‘society’ shouldn’t get in the mix with that.”
Another student interviewed in the investigation felt the “I am not a gang member” apparel was only for select students, and that only some students were offered extra credit for wearing it.
In a 26-page response to the investigation, Donofrio said the allegations boil down to two issues: “My attempts to create a safe, welcoming environment for Black students and my support for the fact that Black Lives Matter,” and what she calls “incomplete information” regarding changing the student’s grade.
Donofrio pointed out multiple instances in which she says the allegations against her were things that other teachers do without facing discipline, such as offering extra credit for extra-curricular activities or allowing an unauthorized person into the building.
“Other teachers regularly, without issue, bring family members and friends to their classroom, particularly during non-school hours when students are not present which, to my understanding, does not violate any Lee High School policies,” she wrote. “At approximately 8:30PM on 3/22/21, I left my classroom to go to my car to retrieve items, accidentally locking my keys in my classroom. While locked out, I saw and spoke to a former faculty member. School Resource Officer JT Wilson, unlocked both the perimeter gate and building to allow both I and the former faculty member to enter. Officer JT Wilson allowed an unauthorized visitor on campus and inside the building.”
“Commissioner [Richard] Corcoran and DCPS’ decision to terminate me was a foregone conclusion for some time, and it was their final act of retaliation and harassment against me,” she wrote.
Donofrio was referencing a speech Corcoran gave in May — long before the investigation into her behavior was complete — in which he claimed he “made sure” Donofrio was terminated as part of what he said were his efforts to police teachers and keep them from “indoctrinating” students with critical race theory.
Florida in June banned the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept that teaches that institutions like banking, housing, education and policing continue to be shaped by America’s racist past, and that racism is more structural than the product of individual people’s bias. Gov. Ron DeSantis has called the theory an “unsanctioned narrative” that “teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other based on race.”
Some suspect similar pressure may have been at play in the case of Alex Ingram, a DCPS civics teacher whose contract at Darnell Cookman Middle-High School was not renewed after he spoke against a ban on critical race theory at a July protest.
“The governor and Richard Corcoran have decided to intimidate us,” Ingram said at the time. “My fear is that other teachers will be intimidated, not really understanding what is and what isn’t critical race theory, and will completely whitewash their teaching.”
“We are seeing teachers across Florida and the country who are facing persecution from their school districts for teaching the truth in schools and for creating safe learning spaces for all children,” said Evian White De Leon, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who represented Donofrio in her now-settled civil rights lawsuit against the district.
After at least a dozen community members emailed Superintendent Diana Greene on his behalf, Ingram was reinstated at Sandalwood High School.
Donofrio’s whistleblower complaint against the district with the City of Jacksonville Inspector General is ongoing.
Contact Sydney Boles at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.