The levels to this story are just—wow. A Florida high school teacher has sued the school district after being told to take down a Black Lives Matter flag.
In case you were wondering what the name of the school she teaches at, it’s Robert E. Lee High School. Fucking Florida, y’all.
According to NPR, Amy Donofrio, an English teacher at the school, hung the flag up outside her classroom after one of her students, Reginald Boston, was shot and killed by Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office last year. Donofrio helped co-found the school’s EVAC program, which aims to help at risk Black students in Jacksonville. Boston was a member of the program, so his death struck close to home. She hung the flag so that students would know that her classroom was a safe space for students to process their classmate’s death.
“His life mattered. Period,” Donofrio told NPR. “Walking beside his family, his mom, and seeing what it looks like in real life, there’s no possible way that you can’t stand by the belief that Black lives matter.”
Donofrio was told by district officials to take the flag down in March as it violated the district’s policy on political speech. So to be clear: Having a school named after a Confederate general who fought to defend slavery? That’s chill. A flag letting the school’s 70 percent Black population know that they’re seen? Well dammit, that’s where we have to draw the line.
Donofrio refused to remove the flag and the district re-assigned her to non-teaching duties. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit on Donofrio’s behalf against the district in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, which claims that the school district violated her First Amendment rights by forcing her to remove the flag.
Donofrio alleges that the school district consistently undermined the EVAC program by demoting it from a class to a club to an informal group, turning down private funding and blocking her from using non-teaching days to take students on field trips. It felt like the school didn’t support its Black students. The conflict over the flag was just the final straw.
“It’s a question of whether or not this is a matter of great public significance, whether or not this speech is protected,” said Cathleen Scott, a civil rights attorney who is representing Donofrio alongside the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Ms. Donofrio was speaking out against racism. And that’s a very important value.”
That argument might face an uphill battle in court, said Rachel Arnow-Richman, a professor of labor and employment law at the University of Florida.
“We think of the First Amendment as a foundational principle of our democracy, and it is, but it’s subject to many limitations,” Arnow-Richman said.
Donofrio has the support of the school’s predominately Black student population, 16,000 of whom have signed a petition requesting the teacher be brought back into the classroom. “Since we are a Title I school, not everybody has access to the right resources. So she helps out with kids who need hygiene or food or even help applying to college,” Amiyah Jacobs, a senior at the school told NPR. “She was just very sweet. And she cared for the students. It wasn’t always just about ‘Do your work.’ “
Jacobs added that seeing the Black Lives Matter flag provided her with comfort and she thought it was disrespectful that the district took it down. I don’t understand how the district can’t even see the message they’re sending. In effect, they’re telling the students of Robert E. Lee High School that no, their lives don’t matter. If that’s really how they feel, then why the fuck are they even in the education business to begin with?
“There are educators all over this country that want to stand with our children, that are advocating for our children, and are being retaliated against and pushed back against as a result.” Donofrio told NPR. “My goal, my hope, is that by doing this, we can empower more educators to stand beside our kids.”