A Letter to Students at Friends Central School: Resist!

NOTE: This report has been updated as of late Feb. 14. The update is here.

News background:

Wynnewood (Philadelphia) PA, February 13, 2017: “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.

Sa’ed Atshan, Swarthmore College Peace & Conflict Studies Assistant Professor.


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ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates punitive measures against Israel, the school rescinded the invitation.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. . . .”

Cathy Bocella, Staff Reporter, phillynews.com

A Message to students at Friends Central School:

From Chuck Fager

A few weeks ago I visited Friends Central School (FCS) and shared a story with you, about getting arrested in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and spending the night in jail with Dr. King.

I told you that for almost 50 years, that true story had a happy ending: from the black struggle in Selma came the Voting Rights Act, which had advanced freedom, elected presidents, and made America better.

But then starting a few years back, that happy ending was snatched away. In its place came massive vote suppression, and following that,  continuing attacks on the other freedoms that democracy protects. So my story about a fight for freedom was not over after all.

At my age, I said, passing on these stories is my main contribution. It’s a passing of the torch. As for the real activism, as for the new leadership demanded by our times, — and these were my final words:
“It’s your turn.”

Now it looks as if your turn has come already.

I don’t know Sa’ed Atshan; but people I respect (like former FCS teacher Max Carter) say he’s well-informed & reasonable. Yet I gather some of his views are controversial.

I’m no expert on those issues. So maybe Atshan’s views are right, or maybe they’re mistaken; that’s not for me to say.

Instead, that’s for you to say, by hearing his views, and those of others, studying & debating them & making up your own minds.

That’s what we call education. In FCS fundraising materials, like for the “Vision2020,” it’s called “Educating for Excellence.”
We also call it freedom.

But somebody doesn’t seem to want you to exercise that freedom, or get that education.

So now the line is drawn: not only in Alabama, but right there in Wynnewood, on your campus. Not just for students, but for staff, whose jobs are on the line.

So the question now becomes: are you ready to claim and defend your freedom, as part of your education?

Or will you let an unnamed few chop off this piece of it– this important piece?

The message being sent is clear:  you may not hear these views here. That topic is verboten on this campus. Teachers who stood up for that are paying the price.

Just so you know, all this makes a mockery of the claims about “excellence.” And if you accept this, there are more pieces of freedom waiting to be chopped off, like limbs from a tree, and others ready to give similar orders.

But here’s something I learned in Selma, and not only from Dr. King:
You don’t have to comply.

An order not to hear, not to consider, not to think and debate about matters of this importance –such an order may be technically legal, but it defies the higher law that we were all given minds to be used, freely and fully, for knowledge, and for seeking justice.

One of my Quaker heroes, Philadelphia’s own Lucretia Mott, put it as well as anyone: “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth.” For her this was a Quaker Testimony, a central one.

Dr. King put it another way:

But you don’t have to be silenced.

In 2017, it’s easy to imagine alternatives: check your social media, you’ll see that resistance to similar attacks is rising all around you.

Some of the 50000+ close friends I joined with at the Resistance rally in Raleigh NC last weekend. It’s their turn too.

Spring will be here soon, and then you, students, could invite Atshan to speak on the edge of campus, to a flash mob (but since this is school, let’s call it a flash assembly). Same for his critics. Or you can think of another way to listen, study & debate: to take charge of this piece of your education.

But, some may say, what if we get in trouble? Will it cut our chances of getting into an elite college?

Who knows? Freedom, as they say in the army, isn’t free. It takes organization, and it takes courage. In Selma it led Dr. King and me to jail; a few years later it led him to a bullet in Memphis.

But chill: chances are no one will be in mortal danger insisting on real educational excellence and freedom at FCS. If you haven’t noticed, it’s a pretty cushioned, advantaged place.

So put these advantages to work, for your benefit now, and as training in “education for excellence” in the not-so advantaged world that awaits beyond the campus.

That’s a world in which the struggles for freedom are heating up on every side. Looks like they won’t leave you alone even now.

Which means, my parting words to you last month weren’t a prophecy, and not even a prediction, but simply an announcement. Brothers & sisters:
“It’s your turn.”

This is the Selma, Alabama jail cell Dr. King and I were put in. It was still there in 2015, fifty years later. But this time, I was outside, looking in.

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10 thoughts on “A Letter to Students at Friends Central School: Resist!”

  1. When Quaker values become Quaker dogma, so it goes. In Yearly Meetings and now in a Quaker School.

    And what a grand opportunity for the students, as you point out. They’ve got the dogmatists right where the want them: out in the open.

    It doesn’t get better than that.

    Which applies to the larger political context as well.

  2. I’m grateful for your voice, Chuck, and especially your giving these young people specific direction in what probably feels confusing to them. Don’t let this go to your head, but damn, you’re good.

    Stay healthy… your’ s is not the lone voice, but it is an important one.


  3. If one takes several steps back from this particular controversy, the question arises: What exactly is a “Quaker school” in 2017? I mean this as a real question, not as a rhetorical question. Is there supposed to be a genuine connection between the Quaker religion (beyond certain superficial manifestations of traditional Quaker culture) and a “Quaker school”? Of course, there are many different “Quaker schools” around the US, and I do not mean at all to suggest that they are uniform. I also realize that I have posed two very distinct kinds of questions here: one asks about the world as it is; the other asks about (a small piece of) the world as it should be.

  4. There are Jews who support the BDS movement as a non violent way of protesting the violence the State of Israel is using to “manage m” the Palestinian people. Please see what Jewish Voice for Peace say at http://www.jvp.org.

    As a Quaker who I’d a “birthright” Jew, I have followed thus conflict for many decades. As a child of survivors, it pains me to see American Jews not have the opportunity to learn from Friends why “War is Not the Answer”.

    Perhaps a “Meeting for Threshing could be held at the school?

    Of course the Elephant in the room is that money talks. A f/Friend who lives in Baltimore called me 20 years ago and asked me why his daughter’s Friends School was closed for the Jewish Holidays? I said, “Follow the Money”

    So sad to hear that the myth that a school with a majority of Quakers us all you need to be a Quaker School. Since when do Quakers VOTE to discern the sense of a Meeting?

  5. I recommend reading this op-ed regarding the controversy at Friends Central. Very well thought out, and based in Quaker history and testimonies.


    Why is it that parents are so afraid that their children will hear a different opinion than their own? Don’t they trust their kids and teachers to listen to different ideas and make good judgments about them?

  6. Free: nor is it “consensus” as the writer of the (otherwise very nicely written) philly.com article states, as you know. I understand why he used the word: to get the real sense of how Quaker process works requires an understanding of what it means “to be led.” And that is hard to explain to those who are not yet attuned to same. That attunement is to me a key to all education, not only Quaker education. That’s what gets us in good trouble, the kind that happens when we slough off our assigned studies in order to pursue an area of inquiry, or action, that is banging on one’s doors of perception.

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