Long before George Floyd was killed – and many Americans turned a serious eye toward acknowledging, understanding and even uprooting systemic racism – high school English teacher Amy Donofrio was encouraging her students in Jacksonville, Florida to push for equality and empowerment, for justice and personal achievement.
She wanted them to dream and thrive, and she developed an interpersonal road map to assist them in reaching their destiny – be it helping them apply to colleges, decide on a trade or meet with recruiters and enlist in the military.
As an educator at Robert E. Lee High School (we’ll get to that abomination in a moment), where the student body is 70% Black, Donofrio also wanted to offer a safe space for her students where they could talk openly about race, where they knew their opinions were valued and their voices mattered.
This teacher was doing what teachers do, besides just teach the basics. She provided a place for students to dream, live, and feel safe to talk, and sometimes, to just breathe.
No rules were broken. She is in “teacher jail”, unable to have contact with her students, with some of them ready to graduate.
So above her classroom door, serving as a beacon of tolerance, Donofrio draped a Black Lives Matter flag in October 2020. Within the same week, she was asked to remove the flag. The assistant principal said no complaints had been received, but they – the principal was copied on the email – were concerned it might cause problems. Donofrio asked the administration to produce a school policy that prohibited the flag. They were unable to provide any, and the flag stayed up, along with two others she had inside her classroom.
“It has always been about listening to their stories and being responsive, compassionate and humane towards them,” she said of her students. “As things got more intense, I wanted them to know that they are safe in here, that their community is honored and this is a haven. What I wanted them to do is to be able to walk into my classroom and breathe, like just let out a breath. That was the goal. And that’s what every student deserves. There’s nothing political about that.”