School administrators and members of Jacksonville’s School Board have been receiving a barrage of emails the past few days, all of them asking the same question: Does Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) believe that Black Lives Matter?
The emails are part of a campaign by former students of Robert E. Lee High School’s EVAC Movement student group, as well as its co-founder, Lee High teacher Amy Donofrio. Donofrio posted about the campaign on her Facebook page Tuesday, saying, “Need your help...email DCPS this simple question. Add NOTHING else, so it’s impossible to avoid the question. It’s a basic, crucial question...w/an answer that’s only YES or NO. For any school we trust w/ our kids, the answer should be EASY.”
In recent meetings at Robert E. Lee High School, some white alumni of the school, who primarily graduated in the 60s and 70s, defended the school’s namesake using racist language. Then, administrators asked Donofrio to remove a Black Lives Matter flag from outside her classroom. Donofrio refused, and was placed under investigation by the school district.
“It’s not about my job; it’s not even about the name change,” Donofrio, who is white, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s about, does DCPS believe that Black lives matter?”
The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ began as a hashtag and a protest chant following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of African American teen Trayvon Martin. It’s since become a rallying cry for civil rights activists protesting the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police. Some nonprofits and community groups use ‘Black Lives Matter’ as part of their names, but according to research in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, the phrase can also be used as a slogan or a shorthand for social movements that fight for racial equity.
What exactly the phrase means, or how it’s used, matters because in an email to WJCT News, a spokesperson for DCPS suggested Donofrio’s Black Lives Matter flag violated school policy on political activities by employees.
Last year, DCPS banned a Neptune Beach football team from running onto the field with a Thin Blue Line flag. School administrators told WJCT news partner News4Jax that it had banned the flag after receiving several complaints. A member of the football team had been carrying the flag to memorialize his father, a Jacksonville Beach police officer who had passed away.
Thin Blue Line is a term that dictionary.com describes as the idea that law enforcement acts as a barrier - or line - between the community they protect and lawlessness. The Thin Blue Line flag has become controversial due to its use by white supremacists and the Blue Lives Matter movement.
In response to questions from WJCT News about whether DCPS viewed the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a political issue, such that a BLM flag would violate its political activities policy, spokesperson Laureen Ricks responded with a memo from December 2020 titled “Employee Expressions of Social Movements or Causes.” The memo is not part of the official DCPS handbook.
In part, the memo reads:
Although employees may personally express support for various social movements and causes, such expression on school property and/or District sponsored events must not be interpreted as speaking on behalf of the school or District. As such, 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.
Diamond Wallace, an alumni of Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee Senior High School, pointed out what she sees as a discrepancy, saying DCPS put its logo on rainbow flag posters that are clearly visible around Jacksonville schools.
“We have DCPS that can put their entire logo on the LGBTQ flag, but we also can’t have our flag. So we’re fighting for some lives. It’s picky,” Wallace said.
Some people behind the email campaign have gotten emails back from School Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen that simply say, “Black Lives Matter.” Wallace said it’s not enough. To her, that feels like a personal endorsement from the sender. Wallace wants to hear, specifically, that DCPS as an institution believes that Black lives matter.
“I always say that complacency and being silent is just another word for racism,” she said.
Contact Sydney Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.