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Over the past year, a number of teachers in the United States have been punished for daring to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in a country with a legacy of enslaving, segregating, and disproportionately jailing Black people.
From Florida to Massachusetts to Texas, educators have reportedly faced retaliation such as reassignment, backlash from parents, and even administrative leave over actions like refusing to take down a Black Lives Matter flag and telling students that “many cops are racist.”
The animus against these topics could get even worse: Republican lawmakers in statehouses across the country are racing to limit the teachings of critical race theory, which examines systemic injustices and white privilege, and adjacent issues among public school students over claims of such lessons being unpatriotic. One legislator in Arizona even introduced an amendment that would fine teachers up to $5,000 for discussing “controversial issues” unless presented with “diverse and contending perspectives.”
As a result of that political fervor, some schools have even been forced to announce that they’re not teaching critical race theory to assuage parents, despite the widespread Black Lives Matter protest movement last year that reached some 2,500 cities and towns in the U.S.
Here’s what teachers have already found themselves in hot water over:
Refusing to take down a Black Lives Matter flag
Florida teacher Amy Donofrio was allegedly reassigned to non-teaching duties and banned from her school’s campus in Duval County after refusing to take down a Black Lives Matter flag outside of her classroom at the predominantly Black Robert E. Lee High School named after the Confederate general in Jacksonville.
“Ms. Donofrio sought to create a safe space for students to discuss tumultuous racially charged topics circulating in the media, in the school, and in their own lives,” stated a lawsuit Donofrio filed in April against Duval County Public Schools and Scott Schneider, the high school region superintendent, with help from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Several students shared some of the hate speech they had recently endured throughout the 2020 presidential election. As always, Ms. Donofrio offered a calm response and open mind.”
All the while, the school ordered that she remove the Black Lives Matter flag outside of her classroom. At one point in March, the district allegedly cited its policy that “no employee shall use his/her position in any way to influence or attempt to influence students to support or oppose any candidate, party or issue,” including through advocacy, according to the lawsuit. Finally, on March 23, the school administration removed the flag itself, the lawsuit alleged.
“I’m getting sued right now in Duval County, which is in Jacksonville, because there was an entire classroom memorialized to Black Lives Matter,” said Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran during an event last month for Hillsdale College, a conservative school in Michigan.
“We made sure she was terminated and now we’re being sued by every one of the liberal left groups for freedom of speech issues,” he added, according to Politico.
Duval County Public Schools did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
In Coconut Creek, Florida, Nadine Cutler also refused to take down a Black Lives Matter flag at the private school where she worked as a middle school teacher. A parent then complained, according to a report from WPLG, an ABC affiliate in Miami, last September.
“The parent was trying to use the comparison of me presenting the Black Lives Matter flag in my class as some sort of political statement,” Cutler told VICE News Friday. “He compared it to me having a Trump flag or a Biden flag in my classroom.”
Her school told parents that it supports inclusivity, but doesn’t allow teachers to promote social or political causes in class, according to WPLG.
In the end, Cutler said she was forced to resign from her job at the North Broward Preparatory School, according to WPLG.
“I wish I could just urge other public school teachers to acknowledge racism that exists and actively unlearn it,” said Cutler, who now works and lives in Massachusetts.
Saying ‘many cops are racist’
Zakia Jarrett, an English teacher at a middle school in Milton, Massachusetts, was briefly placed on paid administrative leave last June after a class discussion on racism, during which she said “many cops are racist” and that racism wasn’t a good enough excuse for police killing Black people, according to WBUR.
The decision to place Jarrett on administrative leave was reversed the same day it was made, according to WBUR, but it still sparked backlash. The district superintendent also apologized.
“There are many police officers who are racist,” Jarrett told WBUR. “I wasn't saying most or all, just many.”
The Milton School District said in a statement to WBUR that “the manner in which these events unfolded caused pain to an employee of the Milton Public Schools and negatively impacted students.”
"This incident has caused the District to deeply reflect on our processes and practices as we consider academic freedom and the many complex facets of remote learning,” the district added.
Allowing phrases like ‘Black Lives Matter’ on a yearbook’s back cover
A middle school art teacher at the Downing Middle School in Flower Mound, Texas, was placed on administrative leave last month after she approved of artwork on the back of a yearbook that contained phrases like ”Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” among other images like smiley-faces, a cupcake, and the TikTok logo, according to the Dallas Morning News.
While some parents were concerned about the yearbook, the images were apparently decided upon by eighth-grade students and received a signoff from the teacher, Kayla Mick. While a spokesperson for Lewisville Independent School District told the Dallas Morning News that it would be inaccurate to say Mick was on leave as a result of parent complaints, she added that “we expect staff to remain neutral while engaging students in these conversations, in accordance with district policy.”
More than 42,000 people have signed a petition in support of the teacher since.
“Yearbooks are time capsules, meant to snapshot the events of the time, which this work did. They are not endorsements or political statements but reflections of the time period,” the petition reads. “After the yearbook was published, some members of the community and many unconnected to LISD protested the design and demanded the resignation of both the principal and teacher.”
Mick and the Lewisville Independent School District did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
This story has been updated with comment from Nadine Cutler.