Friends' Central teachers fired after inviting Palestinian professor to speak, but he's asked back

Two Friends' Central School teachers who were placed on administrative leave after they invited a Palestinian professor to address a student group received notice Tuesday that they were being fired by the Quaker school in Wynnewood.

In addition, the administration said the man at the center of the ruckus, Sa’ed Atshan, a peace and conflict studies professor at Swarthmore College and himself a Quaker, had been asked to speak at the school about “his personal experiences and path to peace education."

Letters sent by head of school Craig Sellers to teachers Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa said that they would be paid until June 30, but that their employment was then terminated. They were offered severance pay of $5,500, but that is contingent on their dropping a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit, said Mark Schwartz, their lawyer.

"This is a ridiculous offer,” he said. “I’d be surprised if they took it. Unlike the school, these two have some principles.”

School representatives on Tuesday declined to give a reason for the terminations.

The two teachers supervised a Palestinian peace club that invited Atshan to speak in February, but the talk  was canceled at the last minute after some Jewish parents and students and others complained, setting off student protests. Eure and Helwa said Sellers told them that they were put on leave for being present at the student protests.

The controversy shined a light on a thorny issue for 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.

In response to complaints about its handling of the canceled speech, Friends' Central formed a task force to consider how the school schedules programs and speakers. On Monday, in a letter to parents, the task force said it was recommending that the Dialogue Institute of Temple University be invited to work with students and teachers to promote “intrareligious, interreligious, and intercultural dialogue.”

It also suggested that the school show the film Wrestling Jerusalem this spring and discuss the issues that it raises about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a separate letter to parents, Sellers said he was re-extending an invitation to Atshan to speak at the school and would invite others who have experienced the Middle East conflict and other conflicts around the world.