NOTE: This report has been updated as of late Feb. 14. The update is here.
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.
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ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates punitive measures against Israel, the school rescinded the invitation.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.
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.”
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