A teacher in the Duval County Public School system has filed a lawsuit against the district over free speech issues and allegations of retaliation.
Robert E. Lee High School teacher Amy Donofrio was removed from the classroom and placed under investigation by the school district in March after she refused to take down a Black Lives Matter flag outside her classroom. Now, Donofrio is being represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the civil rights firm Scott Wagner and Associates in a suit against the district and former principal supervisor Scott Schneider for what the lawsuit calls “relentless retaliation and violation of her rights to free speech and expression.”
“I hope this case will set a needed precedent,” Donofrio said. “Teachers should not be punished for supporting their students’ humanity. Our students matter, and as educators, we will no longer tolerate them being systemically damaged, silenced, and failed. To our Black students, we see you, we stand with you, and you matter.”
According to the complaint, Donofrio was first asked to remove the Black Lives Matter flag in October 2020 because it “might” violate district policy. When Donofrio asked which policy it violated, DCPS provided her with two policies that she said did not apply to her. Donofrio told the district as much and heard nothing back, so she left the flag hanging, thinking it was no longer an issue.
Donofrio said students confided in her that seeing the Black Lives Matter flag on her classroom door brought them comfort, especially following the death of Robert E. Lee High School alumni Reginald Boston at the hands of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
“Two days after I was removed [from teaching] would have been his 22nd birthday,” Donofrio said. “His life mattered, period. And I think walking beside his family, his mom, and seeing what it looks like in real life, right in front of you, for that to play out, there’s no possible way you can’t stand by the belief that Black lives matter.”
Donofrio has started a petition asking JSO to release any bodycam footage of Boston’s killing.
The conflict over the flag reignited in March of this year, as Lee High played host to a series of meetings over potentially changing the name of the school. Donofrio was again asked to remove the Black Lives Matter flag. DCPS pointed her to a different policy, which read, “No employee shall use his/her position in any way to influence or attempt to influence students to support or oppose any candidate, party or issue. Such prohibition shall include, but not be limited to, any form of advocacy or opposition in a classroom or school setting or other school-related student-teacher relationship.”
Donofrio did not take down the flag, arguing that it was not a political statement, but a statement of fact about the worth of Black lives.
Finally, on March 25, Donofrio was reassigned to paid, non-teaching duties.
The lawsuit also lists other ways in which DCPS administrators allegedly retaliated against Donofrio and made life more difficult for Black students, including rejecting funding for a life skills class that garnered national acclaim, and disproportionately expelling Black students.
A spokesperson for DCPS declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is a pending case.
Evian White De Leon, the lead attorney on the case with SPLC, said the case raises questions about whether Donofrio’s speech should be protected.
“It’s a matter of great public significance,” she said. “Certainly it puts on a different element when you’re speaking out about the rights of your students, the rights of yourself and other individuals, as it relates to ending racism. It’s not about having a political affiliation or a cause that you support; it’s much more than that.”
The suit comes amid the years-long fight over renaming nine Duval County schools, including Lee High, where Donofrio has taught. Voting on the name change begins April 26.
The lawsuit is seeking a court order banning school policies that they say stop teachers from exercising their First Amendment rights by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Contact Sydney Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.