Amy Donofrio, left, awaits a decision by the Education Practices Commission. | Nandhini Srinivasan, The TributaryAmy Donofrio, left, awaits a decision by the Education Practices Commission. | Nandhini Srinivasan, The Tributary
Amy Donofrio, left, awaits a decision by the Education Practices Commission. | Nandhini Srinivasan, The Tributary

Duval teacher wins fight over Black Lives Matter flag

Published on June 17, 2024 at 10:50 am

A former Duval County teacher won her fight Thursday to keep her teaching license after the state targeted her for displaying a Black Lives Matter flag in a case that drew national attention.

Amy Donofrio, a former high school teacher, successfully argued the state had no right to go after her for the flag, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration targeting her as a public example of its war against what it has said is liberal influence in public schools.

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An independent panel unanimously voted to accept a written reprimand — not the probation and fine sought by the state — of Donofrio.

As the district was considering changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School, she had kept face masks in her classroom that said, “Robert E. Lee was a gang member.” The panel issued the reprimand because of those masks but rejected the state’s attempt to discipline her for displaying the Black Lives Matter flag.

Donofrio celebrated her success in beating the state, but she and her lawyer said they may still appeal the written reprimand.

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Donofrio’s case marks a failure for the DeSantis administration’s efforts to punish teachers it has claimed were violating state standards by allegedly pushing liberal ideology in classrooms. Instead, an administrative judge found Donofrio had not compromised her students with the flag or masks.

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to repeated calls and emails with questions on whether the state would change any policies due to this case.  

‘I always wanted to be a teacher’

Donofrio woke up Thursday to notifications that someone had, again, left threats on her Facebook page, the latest in what she said has become standard for her in the three years since the state called her out for flying the Black Lives Matter flag.

As she drove that morning to Tampa, where the Education Practices Commission would decide to accept an administrative judge’s findings that she shouldn’t have her license suspended, she recalled what brought her to Jacksonville in the first place.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, nothing else,” she told a reporter as she drove. “And I did for 13 years what I loved to do, what I felt like I was born to do.” 

She had taught at what was then called Robert E. Lee High School for nearly a decade. As a teacher, she became an advocate for her students, advising a class she called the EVAC Movement. In that role, she earned local and national plaudits from Republicans and Democrats alike for her work against gang violence and for racial justice.

That changed after the 2020 protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd when the district demanded she remove a Black Lives Matter flag and the anti-Confederate face masks.

In 2021, the district removed her teaching responsibilities and reassigned her to work in a warehouse.

DeSantis’ education commissioner at the time, Richard Corcoran, bragged publicly about Donofrio’s removal from the classroom, saying he had helped orchestrate the district’s discipline as part of the state’s effort to police teachers.

“I’ve censored or fired or terminated numerous teachers,” Corcoran said before telling the story of having Donofrio removed from her classroom.

Donofrio sued the district and settled later that year when the district didn’t renew her teaching contract.

But then the Florida Department of Education came after her teachers’ license, creating a high-profile showdown between DeSantis’ new conservative standards for teachers, the same standards he would highlight in his unsuccessful presidential run.

“Politicians are trying to run up their poll numbers through these completely warrantless and baseless attacks on teachers,” said Mark Richard, Donofrio’s lawyer.

Teacher may appeal reprimand

By allowing a Black Lives Matter flag and face masks that criticized the legacy of Robert E. Lee, the Department of Education alleged, Donofrio had not made enough effort to “protect the student from conditions harmful to learning and/or to the student’s mental and/or physical health and/or safety.” The department also said she had failed to take reasonable precautions to distinguish between her personal views and those of the district.

For three years Donofrio fought the state. Even though she no longer taught at the school district, she believed it was wrong for the state to remove her license and her ability to teach again in the future.

“Of course, I would love to teach again,” she said. Teachers across the state, she said, “are afraid of the Florida Department of Education. They’re afraid of Gov. DeSantis, to be on his bad side.”

At a Duval County courthouse last year, Donofrio and the state put on witnesses and presented their arguments for two days before an administrative judge.

While the judge agreed with Donofrio that the Black Lives Matter flag didn’t warrant any discipline, the judge wrote that a written reprimand was appropriate for the face masks because Donofrio did not do enough to distinguish between her views and the district’s views on Robert E. Lee.

The state had requested approval to put her teaching license on probation and issue a fine against her.

“I felt like a weight that I’ve been carrying for three years was at least partially lifted off of me,” Donofrio said after the panel in Tampa accepted the judge’s recommendations. “I felt a sense of some freedom, for the first time in a long time.”

However, Donofrio said she may appeal the judge’s decision for a reprimand because she doesn’t want the state to have a precedent that OKs any discipline for other teachers similarly caught in DeSantis’ crosshairs.

Essentially, the reprimand tells Donofrio that moving forward, if she has an opinion that differs from the district’s position, she must make that clear to students, said Mark Richard, her lawyer. “We think that was a mistake under the law, and we’ll be considering appealing just that part” he added. 

Still, he said, “on a legal front, this ruling once again affirms that a teacher can teach honestly, that a teacher should not be the victim of these political cultural wars.” 

‘It’s shaken the way I’ve seen the world’

Donofrio said ever since DeSantis’ education commissioner publicized her case, she has been the target of harassment and threats. After one threat, she said, she changed the locks to her home. 

“The past three years have been by far the hardest years of my life, the years where I have questioned things the most in my whole life,” she said. Having her ability to teach taken away from her on top of the harassment, she said, shook her identity. “It’s shaken the way I’ve seen the world.”

In addition to going after individual teachers like Donofrio, DeSantis has prioritized a series of laws that have restricted what teachers are allowed to talk about in the classroom. 

The STOP WOKE Act in 2022 barred teaching critical race theory and teaching that says people are oppressed based on their race. Another law banned teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity for grades eight and below, and it prohibited teaching that wasn’t “age-appropriate” for high schoolers. 

According to the American Library Association, nearly 2,700 books were targeted for restriction or removal in Florida schools and public libraries last year.

While Donofrio has retained her license to teach, it is unclear whether she will be able to do so in Duval County Public Schools. The district did not respond to requests for comment.

This story is published through a partnership between Jacksonville Today and The Tributary

Nandhini Srinivasan is The Tributary's 2024 investigative reporting intern and a 2024 graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, with a specialization in investigative reporting. She was previously a breaking news business and health care reporter for Reuters, where she worked with the team to cover major stories including the Musk-Twitter deal, and UBS-Credit Suisse deal. While at the Columbia Journalism School, she reported on housing courts, public housing and labor issues and was instrumental to the student-led coverage of protests at the university. You can reach Nandhini at or at +1 603-422-4028.

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