Friends Seminary – Fired Teacher Will Return

A normally reliable source has furnished me a copy of a letter from the Principal of Friends Seminary (or FS)  in New York City,  announcing that “In late January we will welcome Ben Frisch back into the classroom.” (I called FS to ask about it; as of this writing, there was no response.) The full text of the letter is below.

If you don’t know, Ben Frisch is the Quaker teacher at Friends Seminary (“the”, as in THE only Quaker teacher almost a year ago, when this story began), who was abruptly fired last March.

He  got the boot after making a clumsy joke in a geometry class about how his raised arm, illustrating an obtuse angle, was like a “Heil Hitler” salute.

Frisch is about as far from being “Nazi friendly” as you could want. Although he’s a longtime Quaker, his ancestors were European and Jewish, and some were lost in the Holocaust. He doesn’t need a “diversity officer” to brief him on all that. Nevertheless, he was canned within a couple weeks. In a letter to students, the principal, Bo Lauter, wrote, “Our students know that words and signs of hate and fear have no place at Friends . . . .”

But in fact there was much more diversity of view at FS about whether Frisch’s obtuse angle quip constituted “words and signs of hate.”  Frisch’s firing set off a firestorm: petitions on his behalf were signed by hundreds of students, and hundreds of alumni (after all, he had taught at FS for 34 years without any complaints; he knew lots of alumni). There was even a sit-in.

The incident also caught the attention of some big outside media. The New York Times ran a substantial article about the case in February, then followed up on the tumultuous aftermath with a long cover article in the “Education Issue” of its weekly magazine in September.

The New York Times Magazine cover. Ben Frisch is at the right.

In fact, some militant critics, mainly parents, called the joke “inexcusably offensive,” One mom told the Times of Israel that “I would have been gravely disappointed if the school had kept him, and would have been extremely unhappy and uncomfortable to have my child in that classroom next year.”

Yet a columnist for the same paper retorted that  “At the same time an adherence to the values of forgiveness and restorative justice that institutions like Friends promote would seem to demand a path — reprimand, rehabilitation — other than firing someone who made people uncomfortable.”

All this for a freekin’ Obtuse Angle!

One FS graduate, Emily Kelton Owens, was even more eloquent, in a commentary published by the New York Daily News:

“I graduated from Friends Seminary in 1995. I have been absorbing the coverage around the school’s termination of teacher Ben Frisch over an impromptu, insensitive joke in which he said “Heil Hitler” to his class.
While the joke was in poor taste, I am more concerned by Friends’ reaction. Their decision to dismiss Frisch contradicts the school that I loved and helped to raise me from ages 6 to 17.
Frisch, a widely respected member of the Friends faculty, dedicated his 34-year career to educating and bettering the lives of his students rather than pursuing a Ph.D. in geochemistry. There was no kinder or less intimidating teacher than Ben Frisch.
It has been reported that Friends’ principal fired Frisch as part of his pledge to make “students feel safe.” . . .
Friends made me feel safe not by shielding me from uncomfortable situations, but by giving me the tools to navigate through them and by teaching me compassion to address hard situations in a mature manner.
Two aspects of my Friends education have stayed close to my heart 23 years after graduating: First, students had a voice. In keeping with the school’s Quaker heritage, each day of high school started with a meeting for worship, business, or announcements, all of which provided platforms for students to speak their minds or often to lead the conversations. . . .
How, as was reported, did the principal “not consider the ‘Heil Hitler episode’ a close call” when two-thirds of the high school’s student body forgave and even signed a petition urging the school not to terminate Frisch? . . .
I am now a mother of two and am fortunate enough, in large part, due to my Friends education, to be raising children in a small, paradisiacal town in Southern California where the biggest excitement revolves around little league games. . . . While I wish [my children] a generally conflict-free childhood, my personal experience at Friends taught me that it’s navigating my way through uncomfortable situations that empowers me to face adversity and hopefully make compassionate decisions.
There were many ways the school could have made Frisch’s mistake a teachable moment. They could have taught forgiveness of a beloved, kind teacher who was better than his worst day of a 34-year career.
With the approach of Yom Kippur, which signifies a time of forgiveness and new beginnings, I wonder why, if I, a Jew who received a Quaker education from first grade through college, can forgive Ben Frisch, Friends’ administration was unable to do so.

All very well, but the administration wasn’t having it.

Fortunately for Frisch, he was more than simply a nice-guy Quaker teacher with a long, clean record. In addition to the student/faculty petitions which garnered 700 signatures for him, he’s also a union activist.

Yes. FS teachers have a union. And the union sprang into action.

Frisch’s firing ended up before a labor arbitrator, who held a hearing in midsummer.

Meantime, press reaction continued. In The Federalist,  a rightwing blogger wrung his hands and declared “We Need A New Counterculture To Combat The Left’s Circular Firing Brigades.” (He was almost right; but in my view the “Counterculture” whose relevance was demonstrated here  was an OLD one, that’s usually spelled solidarity, or UNIONS for short. 

Without that union clout, odds are Ben Frisch would now be just one more ex-something-or-other, driving for Uber and nursing old grudges.

On October 28, the arbitrator ruled. “While I don’t believe there is a scintilla of evidence Frisch is a Nazi sympathizer, or is in any way anti-Semitic,” the ruling began, “the fact remains Frisch’s behavior was inappropriate.”

Even Frisch agreed with that; he had apologized at the time, and later as well. But, the arbitrator also ruled that with his long clean record, one dumb joke didn’t justify the bum’s rush he got, and ordered his reinstatement.

The Wall Street Journal says it straight.

It wasn’t a total victory: the arbitrator denied his request for back pay, saying the loss of a semester’s compensation was a justifiable suspension.

But now, it appears, Frisch has been vindicated. As the Principal’s letter delicately put it:

In late January we will welcome Ben Frisch back into the classroom. Everyone agrees that his reintegration has required a thoughtful process, and it has involved him. We understand and appreciate that through this period we have shared little information, which may have contributed to some anxiety across the community, especially among those at some distance. Throughout the time, however, essential work has been underway. We appreciate Ben’s understanding and cooperation with the time the School has needed to develop his teaching schedule and respond to the concerns and wishes of faculty, administrative staff and Upper School students. Ben has given the School time to prepare for his return so those students who will experience a teacher change will do so at a natural semester break point.

You ask me, this “thoughtful process” translates mostly as an admission that the Principal and those who pushed for firing Frisch needed some time to eat crow and try to save face. (Compare this outcome to that last spring at Friends Central School in Philadelphia, where two teachers were suspended and then summarily fired almost at the same time, for the “offense” of inviting a distinguished Palestinian Quaker scholar to speak at a reputedly “Quaker” school. Their only recourse was a lawsuit, still pending, and their careers in “Quaker education” are done. (Links to our coverage of that case can be found here. )

Two footnotes to this story:

One: Quaker schools, even those with a long history, sky-high tuitions and many weighty alums, can face damaging public scrutiny despite their “private” status. Any Principal or headmaster (who also has to double as chief fundraiser), should have nightmares about having a personnel decision draw public second-guessing attention  from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the NY Daily News, the Times of Israel & others.

Two: For all the highfaultin talk about “Quaker values”, I hope that students and teachers at FS and other Quaker schools will not miss  the most important “teachable moment” of this affair, which is the fact that it was the presence of a labor union that made this outcome possible. The petitions were good, the letters were good. But don’t kid yourselves: Despite all the “policy handbook” palaver about participation, sensitivity, consensus and yada yada, it was the fact and power of organized solidarity that made it possible to hold the FS school power structure accountable. That’s what saved Ben Frisch’s career and reputation.

Any other conclusion would be, to say the least, obtuse.

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8 thoughts on “Friends Seminary – Fired Teacher Will Return”

  1. Madness, I certainly would come back with an incredibly big chip on my shoulder. But I’m not very nice and I certainly can’t do math, so I guess it all works.

  2. This sure isn’t happening at friends central school outside of PHiladelphia. My teacher clients aren’t being invited back . No Quaker values there . Instead we wait for a court ruling .

  3. I can’t say enough, articulately enough, to express my distress over these two schools’ actions and my relief that there’s been some sort of redress in one case. So thanks, Chuck, for shining a light on these situations as you did. One observation as a lifelong and third generation “school person”: Sometimes adults working in schools seem to lapse into the silliness that’s excusable in the young and inexperienced, and silliness and power can be an awful combination.

    1. Ann: “Sometimes adults working in schools seem to lapse into the silliness that’s excusable in the young and inexperienced, and silliness and power can be an awful combination.”
      A fine observation, yet I would have said, ” . . .BUT silliness and power can be an awful combination.” [Fondly, a one-time-English/Writing adjunct who got laid off, but prefers blogging to Uber . . . .]

  4. Dear Friends,
    Please let us all welcome home Ben Frisch, as upstanding a Quaker as you may find anywhere, and is a gifted teacher in the educational community. We do so need him at the end of the day, and may we find more soon just like him.

    GO Ben and give ’em heaven as you have always done for so many years in faithful service to our youth.

    Tom Martin

  5. My experience as a teacher in public schools is that teachers who “do not tow the line” are not wanted, no matter how good or how many students protest. Administrators want “quiet” classrooms and teachers who are willing to work without supplies and sometimes even textbooks. Yet it is sometimes the union that can be the problem.

    Yes, unions can help right wrongs, as Chuck describes (though the loss of income seems unfair to me.) Yet I was “excessed” at a NYC public high school for crossing picket lines at that infamous “strike” that occured in 1968 when NYC tried to transfer control of its schools to local folks.

    This strike was called by the Federation of Teachers because they were afraid the decentralization o f NYC’s schools would put African Americans in charge of some of the 30 plus new school boards that would replace the one HUGE discrict that NYC was (and still is). They would demand people of color to be in the classroom and the teacher’s union was predominately white and older.

    Not only did the teachers went on strike, so did the principals and the janitors (they had the keys to the schools). It lasted almost 3 months before the “local control” idea was scrapped. So while unions can help its members, they can also interfere with those trying to make the world a better place.

    Miraculously, I was able to find a way to have keys to the school made and so help re-open Wingate High School – the only one opened in Brooklyn. I even had to sleep there to prevent the locks from being changed. While I couldn’t be “fired” after the strike was over, I could be “transferred” to another high school in another county, (far, far, away.)

  6. Thank you for this forthright, bottom line explanation of how Ben was brought back to Friends Seminary. Many of us feel that he should have been given back pay, and that its withholding was pointedly, and excessively punitive, But those of us who know the unfriendly struggle that went on between 15th Street Meeting and its wish to separate from the Seminary and the costs and resentment it caused, feel that this fed into the rush to harsh judgment of Ben’s clumsy gesture that day. Ben has been a long standing beloved member of the NYQM Community and a gifted teacher and we are very glad he’s going back where he belongs.

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