Teacher who hung BLM flag outside class offered extra credit for activism, DCPS investigation finds

District probe into Amy Donofrio’s actions reveals why former teacher was removed from classroom

Newly-released documents from Duval County Public Schools reveal why teacher Amy Donofrio was removed from her classroom duties at the formerly-named Robert E. Lee High School, amid the heated battle over the future of the school’s name, which is now Riverside High School.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Newly-released documents from Duval County Public Schools reveal why teacher Amy Donofrio was removed from her classroom duties at the formerly-named Robert E. Lee High School, amid the heated battle over the future of the school’s name, which is now Riverside High School.

A 248-page report obtained by News4Jax through a public records request sheds light on the months-long investigation into Donofrio’s conduct and shows that the “Black Lives Matter” flag she draped outside her classroom door was not the only thing that prompted her reassignment and eventual dismissal.

Notably, Donofrio was found to have offered students class credit for engaging in activism outside of school and for displaying “I Am Not A Gang Member” merchandise in school photos, the catchphrase of the EVAC Movement brand she cofounded.

The Investigation

The public assumption after Donofrio’s removal from the classroom was that it was a disciplinary action solely in response to her refusal to remove the BLM flag from outside her classroom door. However, documents reveal that the district was investigating seven separate allegations against Donofrio, including two related to the flag. In all, six of the seven allegations were found to be “substantiated.”

The district’s claims that it found to be substantiated are as follows:

  • Donofrio used her authority as a teacher at Lee High School to “advocate a position” amongst the students to support the renaming effort, and supplied students with face masks that displayed the phrase “Robert E. Lee was a gang member.”
  • Donofrio engaged in inappropriate communication when she told students she would give them extra credit if they engaged in activities that aren’t based on the curriculum.
  • Donofrio did change a student’s grades from an “F” to a “B” based on their participation in non-curriculum-based activities.
  • Donofrio showed poor judgment when she allowed unauthorized visitors access to the school building.
  • Donofrio hung a Black Lives Matter flag outside her classroom.
  • Donofrio repeatedly refused to comply with directives from her supervisors to remove the flag that was being displayed at the school.

One of the district’s claims — that Donofrio engaged in poor judgment through involvement in the planning and execution of a student protest of her reassignment — was found to be unsubstantiated.

Grades for Activism

The disciplinary investigative report from DCPS includes interviews with staff, administrators and students in which they claim Donofrio, on multiple occasions, offered students class credit for taking yearbook photos while wearing EVAC Movement merchandise with the phrase “I Am Not A Gang Member” on it.

The accounts cited in the investigation did not say that students were required to purchase the apparel as a condition for the extra credit, but rather Donofrio made specialized face masks and other merchandise available to students in her class. Some students said the extra credit and grade considerations were not consistently applied — saying they appeared to only be for “select students.”

On March 24, 2021, hours before Donofrio was reassigned, Principal Timothy Feagins said a student was seen taking photos with a BLM flag next to the school’s flag pole.

When the student was approached by the school’s athletics director and asked what they were doing, Feagins said the student replied, “I have to get my grade,” explaining that, “Ms. Donofrio allows students to make up assignments for credit by wearing ‘I Am Not A Gang Member’ hoodies for the yearbook and attending the ‘Name Change’ community meeting.

The report said that student’s grade in Donofrio’s class went from an “F” to a “B” due to this extra credit.

The BLM Flag

On March 4, the second in a series of five community meetings to discuss the renaming of Robert E. Lee High School was held at the campus, and days later, a montage of clips showing citizens speaking in opposition to the name change was posted and widely shared to social media. News4Jax coverage of that video on March 22 quoted Donofrio, who recorded some of the clips featured in the viral post.

The following day, Donofrio was again told by administrators to remove a Black Lives Matter Flag that had been hanging outside her classroom since October, but the teacher declined, arguing that the flag did not break any district policies. The district does prohibit teachers from engaging in activism while representing the district and from encouraging students to support any particular partisan stance on political issues.

Donofrio had already been instructed to remove the flag shortly after it was initially displayed.

In a Nov. 2, 2020 email to Donofrio, Assistant Principal William Spell cited a situation weeks earlier at Fletcher High School where the use of a Blue Lives Matter flag was banned from organized team activities.

“While everyone has their opinions on this situation, Dr. Green[e] sent out the Expressions of Social Movements memo or Causes along with an email to all of [the] district employees identifying that these flags, shirts and other items relating to any “Lives Matter” are seen as political statements and not permitted at school,” Spell’s email said. “At this time, the flag needs to be taken down until you can get clarification from the Office of Policy and Compliance.”

After she repeatedly refused the principal’s March 23 ultimatum to remove the flag — even posting replacement banners when her first was removed by staff — Donofrio was reassigned to a paid, non-teaching role at the district’s warehouse facility. It was a position Donofrio referred to as “teacher jail.”

The Background

Donofrio carried 13 years of experience as an educator, most recently teaching English and Leadership at Lee High School during the 2020-21 school year, as the school was being renamed Riverside High School.

The 35-year-old teacher had previously gained national attention for co-founding the EVAC Movement and was well-liked by most students, according to those who spoke with News4Jax and provided testimony in the DCPS investigation of Donofrio.

Donofrio’s attorneys claim tension began to mount between the educator and the district as far back as the 2014-2015 school year, saying that the district and principal “politely tolerated” her Leadership Skills Development course and the EVAC movement, but was “not pleased to see the EVAC students excel.”

The EVAC class was eventually discontinued in 2017, with then-principal Scott Schneider saying neither the district nor the school had canceled the class, instead, the hope was that Donofrio would continue by expanding to include young women.

School district communications staff said that Donofrio didn’t respond to the principal’s suggestions for change before posting a social media message that the class wouldn’t happen that year.

It was during the heightened public controversy over efforts to rename Robert E. Lee High School in 2020-2021, that DCPS said Donofrio’s personal opinions and viewpoints overtook her responsibilities as a public educator in ways that breached district policy.

News4Jax reached out to Donofrio’s attorney for a comment on this report, but no response was immediately received.

Lawsuit settled

In August, the Duval County School Board paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought against the school district by Donofrio who claimed the district retaliated against her and violated her right to free speech.

Details of the settlement obtained by News4Jax showed Donofrio received a $240,000 settlement payment and $60,000 to cover attorney fees.

The school board voted in favor of finding a settlement agreement in the civil case brought against the district by Donofrio and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Given the facts of the case, even though we know we haven’t done anything wrong, these are taxpayer dollars and I just can’t support paying those kinds of dollars over a three to five year period on a case we could settle tonight,” board member Warren Jones said prior to the vote.

A school district attorney said it could cost the district up to $2 million if the case went to trial, which wouldn’t have happened until 2023.

About the Author:

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.