The Growing Attack on Educators

By Jesse Hagopian

Amy Donofrio stands outside the school where she had worked, wearing a mask with the EVAC movement slogan. (EVAC Movement)

As of June 2022, the Washington Post identified at least 160 educators who lost their job or resigned because they taught about race or LGBTQ+ issues. There are undoubtedly scores more who have been pushed out of the classroom that have gone unreported.

In March 2021, Duval County Public Schools (DCPS), which has Florida’s largest Black student population, removed award-winning teacher Amy Donofrio from her classroom. Her crime? Declining to remove a “Black Lives Matter” sign from her classroom at a high school named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee with a student population that’s more than 70 percent Black.

Donofrio and her students had previously co-founded the EVAC Movement to address the racism they faced as Black youth and had presented at Harvard and the White House. Students’ protests of Donofrio’s removal made national news and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued DCPS on he.r behalf. One month later, then-Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran gave a headline-making speech at Hillsdale College bragging he “made sure she was terminated”  despite Donofrio still being employed and no opened state investigation. Soon after Donofrio publicly contested his comments, DCPS terminated her and the Florida Department of Education placed her under investigation. Her licensure hearing is set for this fall.

Another teacher who got into trouble for teaching the truth about race is Matthew Hawn, a white teacher who taught about white privilege at Sullivan Central High School in Blountville, Tennessee.

After Trump encouraged a violent storming of the Capitol by a white supremacist mob on Jan. 6, 2021, Hawn thought that his contemporary issues class should reflect on the Trump presidency and he asked students to consider how he got elected. “They gave a number of answers,” Hawn recounted. “‘He’s a good businessman,’ ‘He’s not a politician,’ ‘What he says resonates with voters,’ ‘Clinton wasn’t good with social media and Trump was,’ ‘Russian interference,’ all these different things. I said, ‘Absolutely, we’re going to look at all those, but here’s a perspective that I guarantee you haven’t seen; and that’s Ta-Nehisi Coates.’” Hawn shared an essay by Coates titled “The First White President,” and a video of Kyla Jenee Lacey performing her poem titled “White Privilege.”

 Because Hawn allowed his students to consider perspectives that challenged racism, on June 8, 2021, Sullivan School District Director David Cox issued dismissal charges against Hawn. The Board of Education voted 6-1 to uphold the recommendation.

Kim Morrison, an English teacher at Greenfield High School in Missouri, was fired in April of 2022 for teaching Nic Stone’s award-winning young adult novel Dear Martin. The book is about 17-year-old Justyce McAllister, a Black student at a predominantly white prep school. When the police racially profile and victimize Justyce, he makes sense of it by writing letters to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Dear Martin became the No. 1 Young Adult Paperback on the New York Times bestseller list and caused Morrison to rise to the top of the school board’s hit list.

To help students understand some of the book’s themes, Morrison assigned a 15-question worksheet called “How Racially Privileged Are You?” On March 16, Morrison was summoned to a meeting with Superintendent Chris Kell. In a closed session not long after, the school board voted not to renew Morrison’s contract. In a letter from the superintendent to Morrison, Kell explained Morrison’s termination was a result of her “decision to incorporate the worksheet associated with the novel Dear Martin.”

Across the country the bans on teaching the truth — and the firing of teachers who do so — are having a chilling effect. Art teacher Kathryn Vaughn told PEN America that she had stopped teaching a lot of art history because of Tennessee’s Prohibited Concepts law. She said, “I took down paintings of Frida Kahlo, I took down Basquiats and even Warhols. At one point the legislature was looking at making it so if you taught anyone on the LGBTQ rainbow, you could be in violation, so I was nervous. I don’t know the sexual orientation of every artist I teach.” She added that her school no longer had a Black History month celebration, “Before these laws were passed, third graders would go to the civil rights museum, and now they go to a baseball game. And we can’t teach Negro Baseball Leagues.” 

There is an urgent need to push back on this censorship and build the solidarity necessary to defend the growing list of educators under attack for teaching truth. l

Adapted from Jesse Hagopian’s Teach Truth: The Attack on Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Antiracist Education, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.

Jesse Hagopian is a Rethinking Schools editor, a high school teacher, and on the staff of the Zinn Education Project. He is the co-editor of the Rethinking Schools book Teaching for Black Lives. He also serves on the Black Lives Matter at School steering committee and is the director of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award.