Students at Robert E. Lee High School are circulating a petition calling for teacher Amy Donofrio to be reinstated. The petition amassed nearly 1,500 signatures in its first six hours online.
Donofrio has been reassigned to paid, non-teaching duties, according to the school district, after she refused to take down a Black Lives Matter flag from outside her classroom. A spokesperson for the district suggested the Black Lives Matter flag could violate school policy about teachers influencing students over political issues.
Lee High senior Jayla Caldwell organized the petition, and wrote, “Ms Donofrio was the light in the darkness for so many students. She would have food in her classroom that she paid for out of her pocket so she could feed students when they were hungry.”
Donofrio is the co-founder of EVAC, a student group focused on reframing Black youth in Jacksonville from “at-risk” to “at-hope.” Students in the group have been selected for Harvard University’s Youth Advisory Board, given TEDx talks, and presented before the United States Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The conflict over the Black Lives Matter flag comes as Robert E. Lee High School is at the center of a campaign to rename nine Jacksonville schools bearing the names of Confederate generals and people accused of crimes against Native Americans. Dubbed Robert E. Lee Senior High School in 1928, the school was segregated as whites-only until the 1971-1972 school year. The student body is now 70 percent Black.
Speaking at a community meeting about the name change Thursday, Lee High senior Amiyah Jacobs, 17, said “The student body is made up of mostly people of color, yet this building stands as a monument for a racist, sexist, confederate military leader who owned slaves. If students really matter, change the name!”
Donofrio’s removal has become a flashpoint for Lee High students. Students planned to walk out of class to protest their school’s name. The administration blocked the protest.
“It was a fear thing. A lot of the administration was coming to us,” said senior Kalynn Edwards, who was involved in planning Wednesday’s protest. “They feel like the only reason the seniors are doing what they’re doing is because of Ms. Donofrio. They feel like she’s telling us to do it. They feel like we don’t have an original mindset. They feel like this is something she has a problem with, so she implanted it in us. She’s just a person who helped us learn what we know now, or educated us on a better understanding.”
Donofrio said the petition moved her to tears. “Youth can and are capable of mobilizing around issues that matter to them, and so the false narrative that people share, whether they’re saying it’s me or other adults orchestrating student activism, is not just absurd, it’s also racist,” she said. “To think that directly after a meeting where the school is debating whether or not the confederacy is a good thing, that administration could strip down a flag that represents Black students' humanity, and that that would not viscerally move them to action, without my involvement, shows the very depths of lack of empathy and even humanity towards black students.”
A spokesperson for the school district said the students had not been permitted to protest because they had not sought the appropriate permission from the administration beforehand.
The spokesperson did not respond immediately to questions about the petition, but said previously it could not comment on Donofrio’s case while the matter was under investigation.
Contact Sydney Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.