Friends' Central School suspends teachers over Palestinian speaker

Sa’ed Atshan, a Swarthmore College professor and a Quaker, had been invited to speak last Friday by Friends' Central's Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, which formed last April.

Two Friends’ Central School teachers who supervised a club that invited a Palestinian speaker to the Wynnewood campus — an appearance the school canceled after some parents and students complained — were placed on administrative leave Monday morning.

English teacher Ariel Eure, 25, and history teacher Layla Helwa, 26, were called to an off-campus meeting with Craig Sellers, the head of school, and a human resources manager, and informed they were suspended indefinitely, said Mark D. Schwartz, a lawyer and former parent at the school who is representing the women.

Schwartz said that he tried to attend the 7:30 a.m. meeting at the Llanerch Diner in Upper Darby, but that school officials turned him away. The teachers were told they were being suspended for disobeying a supervisor and for having a “single-minded approach to a complicated issue for the community,” he said.

“This was done in a non-Quaker fashion," Schwartz said. "It was more like storm trooper fashion.”

Late Monday afternoon, the administration released a statement: "As a Quaker school, we have long-standing expectations for all members of our community – especially for our teachers, who have the responsibility of guiding young minds. There are very real concerns about the conduct of Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa for their disregard of our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace, and integrity. As of today, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa are on indefinite paid administrative leave while a more extensive review is conducted."

The controversy has stirred passions at the school and shone a light on a thorny issue for many Quaker schools: While the American Friends Service Committee supports putting economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories, many students at Quaker schools are Jewish.

Sa’ed Atshan, a Swarthmore College professor and a Quaker, had been invited to speak Friday by the school’s Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, which formed last April. After parents complained about Atshan’s ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates punitive measures against Israel, the school rescinded the invitation.

About 65 students walked out of a weekly Meeting for Sharing on Wednesday to protest the cancellation, while others stood and read a statement. Eure and Helwa walked out with the students.

On Friday, during the time Atshan would have been speaking, about 40 students organized a “facilitated conversation” to discuss their concerns. The teachers said they were told on Wednesday by Mariama Richards, the assistant head of school, and Art Hall, the Upper School principal, not to attend the meeting, Schwartz said. But on Thursday, they maintained, they received an email from Richards that seemed to contradict that order.

Eure, Helwa, and about a dozen other teachers went to the student meeting, Schwartz said, because teachers are required to monitor student safety, “and their feeling was they didn’t want things to get out of hand.” Afterward, the students marched to a dodge-ball assembly in the high school gym carrying signs reading, “My Voice Will Not Be Silenced,” and “Bring Back My Speaker.”

The teachers followed the students to the gym.

“Did they foment protest?” Schwartz said. “No.”

Administrators have not spoken publicly about the controversy. In two letters sent to parents last week, Sellers said that he canceled the speaker and was not allowing any others for now because of parents’ concerns, and that he was forming a task force to look into the issue.

The two teachers have received blowback before about the Palestinian club, which was started by three students who asked them to supervise, according to Schwartz. Six hours after the club posted its mission statement in September, the school took it down, he said.  Hall also told the club that it had to have a speaker, something not usually required, Schwartz said, saying Hall knew Atshan had been invited.

“It’s about a dialogue,” Schwartz said of the club. “These two teachers did not come up with the idea for the club. ... These are not a couple of bomb-throwers.”

Schwartz said that his two sons attended Friends’ Central and Swarthmore, and that he has known Atshan since his older son met him on his first day at the college 13 years ago. The professor “is hardly some radical Palestinian ranter and raver. He’s an academic,” Schwartz said.

Atshan, who teaches in the peace and conflict studies department, declined to be interviewed. 

When he heard the talk had been canceled, Schwartz wrote a letter to Sellers and the head of the board of trustees.

“I said, what the hell is going on? ... This is outrageous,” he said.

The two teachers say they do not know how long they will be suspended or if they will be fired. They are banned from campus and their email has been deactivated, their lawyer said.

“This could not be more un-Quakerly," Schwartz said. "To put them on administrative leave, without any due process, is egregious.”