Swarthmore professor meets with Friends' Central to try to settle dispute

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Swarthmore College professor Sa'ed Atshan Atshan's Feb. 10 talk at the Quaker school in Wynnewood was abruptly cancelled.

After more than a week of turmoil over the canceled speech of a Palestinian-raised Swarthmore College professor,  the chief administrator of Friends' Central School met with him Sunday night to try to hash out their differences.

What happened there is in dispute.

Both sides agree that Friends' Central's head of school, Craig Sellers, spoke in person with Sa'ed Atshan, whose Feb. 10 talk at the Quaker school in Wynnewood was abruptly canceled by Sellers after he had received complaints from some Jewish parents.

Mark Schwartz, a lawyer and friend of Atshan, said Sellers apologized to the professor and extended an invitation to speak at the school. He said Atshan maintained he was not comfortable accepting the offer unless two teachers who had been suspended over student protests that followed the cancellation were allowed to return to their jobs.

 Atshan “has a strong conviction that the teachers should be back,” Schwartz said. “The reason he met with this guy, I’m sure, he was hoping this would get resolved.”

Friends’ Central spokeswoman Lisa D’Orazio gave a different account of what transpired. She said Sellers did not invite Atshan to give a talk but is "keeping the lines of communication open."

A recently formed task force will look at all future programming, including speakers, at the school. "He's still on the table," D'Orazio said of Atshan.

In a letter Monday to Friends' Central families, Philip Scott, clerk of the board of trustees, said of the controversy: "Outside groups have tried to falsely paint this as a free speech issue. I want to be clear, this is not a free speech issue. It is about the school taking the time and effort to formulate and present intellectual, respectful, and comprehensive programs for its students."

 The  preschool-to-12th-grade school, where tuition is $35,000 a year in the upper grades, has been roiled for weeks by the cancellation of Atshan's talk, which was arranged by the Peace and Equality in Palestine club.

 Atshan, 32, who attended a Quaker school in Ramallah on the West Bank, has expressed support for economic sanctions against Israel and has referred to the occupation of the disputed territories as a form of apartheid.

After being  uninvited, Atshan emailed a letter to Sellers saying he “resented” how he had been treated, Schwartz said. By then, two teachers, Ariel Eure, 25, and Layla Helwa, 26, who supervised the Palestine club and had invited the professor to speak, had been placed on paid administrative leave for participating in the ensuing student protests, against school orders, they have said.

According to Schwartz, Sellers has been trying for more than a week to arrange a meeting with Atshan.  "He didn't respond," Schwartz said of the professor.

John McKinstry, a member of the school’s board of trustees and head of Lansdowne Friends School who knows the professor, then intervened. The three met at Swarthmore on Sunday.

Schwartz said Sellers apologized for canceling the professor’s speech and invited him to address the entire school, which he said would be a broader audience than the one Atshan had been initially scheduled to address.

Atshan, who has not spoken publicly about the ruckus, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The fate of the teachers remains unknown. Friends' Central solicitor David S. Fryman told Schwartz on Monday that the school would not respond to a list of demands that he sent to Sellers and the board of trustees over the weekend. Schwartz asked that the teachers be allowed to return to their jobs, that they receive an apology from the school and reimbursement of legal expenses, and that Atshan also get an apology and a return invitation.

“As of last night, they were two-fifths of the way there,” Schwartz said. “My clients want to get back to work.”

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