Philly teachers’ racial discrimination claim against Quaker school can go to trial, court rules

Friends’ Central fired the duo after a 2017 controversy over a Palestinian speaker.

Friends' Central School in Wynnewood

Friends' Central School in Wynnewood

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Did a top-rated Main Line school wrongfully fire two teachers of color after they invited a Palestinian professor to address students in 2017?

A lawsuit alleging it did can now move forward, a federal court ruled last week.

The U.S. Eastern District denied Friends’ Central’s motion to dismiss a discrimination case that was filed against the Quaker institution and its top officials last year.

In the lawsuit, teachers Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa claim school administrators violated their civil rights by firing them after they scheduled a pro-Palestinian talk with students — a level of disciplinary backlash they say white teachers never experienced. They further allege top school officials ran a smear campaign against them following their termination.

The federal court’s ruling allows the lawsuit to proceed on claims of racial discrimination, while dismissing other discrimination claims of a religious and sexual nature. Eure is gay and African American; Helwa is also gay and is a Muslim of Egyptian and Puerto Rican descent.

The court shot down Friends’ Central argument that a first amendment clause bars the government from enforcing laws related to religion.

“Good Quakers don’t say they’re not subject to the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Mark D. Schwartz, the attorney for the teachers, told Billy Penn. “Friends’ Central has these supposed liberal values and uses Quakerism when it’s convenient.”

An attorney for Friends’ Central said the school maintains the allegations are “without merit.”

The high-profile case unfolds at a time when other controversies over free speech — including those involving Middle East politics — have been erupting at private schools and on college campuses across the country, including in Philadelphia.

Palestinian peace talk led to protests 

The case revolves around a months-long controversy that embroiled the prestigious institution in suburban Wynnewood, Pa., over two years ago.

In February 2017, Eure and Helwa invited Sa’ed Atshan, a queer Palestinian professor of peace studies at Swarthmore, to address a student club that promoted pro-Palestinian activism.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a divisive issue at the Friends’ Central, which is home to a sizeable Jewish student population. Parents complained to the school after they learned about Atshan’s past criticism of Israel, including his support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a Palestinian-born movement that seeks to put economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.

Under fire, the head of the school Craig Sellers, now a defendant in the suit, revoked the invitation two days before Atshan was scheduled to speak. Student protests erupted in response to the abrupt cancellation. Eure and Helwa attended in support — which Sellers claims they were given “explicit” orders not to do. The school consequently suspended the two instructors, Philly Mag reported at the time. The duo filed a complaint against the school with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Sellers and other school officials moved to terminate the teachers on the grounds that they violated school directives, according to the lawsuit. Officials offered severance pay if the duo agreed to pull their EEOC complaint and not publicly speak ill of Friends’ Central.

The plaintiffs refused the alleged hush money. In their lawsuit, they claim that white teachers also violated direct orders from the school — but received minimal discipline.

White teachers have failed to turn in student grades, refused to attend faculty meetings, skipped mandatory graduations and even left “a written comment on a dyslexic student’s essay asking if she was ill,” the fired teachers allege, yet faced no greater consequences than a sit-down with administrators. The teachers also said they had received nothing but positive reviews from the school prior to this fallout.

In dismissing Friends’ Central’s request to toss the case, the U.S. Eastern District said these allegations were sufficient enough to proceed to trial.

“Plaintiffs have shown that similarly situated non-protected employees were treated more favorably than were Plaintiffs and have, therefore, satisfied the [face-value] elements of discrimination on the basis of race or color,” the court wrote.

Students posted notes in protest of the teachers' suspension, before they were fired

Students posted notes in protest of the teachers' suspension, before they were fired

Provided

‘Scapegoating’ or ‘thoughtful Quaker decision-making’?

After press coverage of the student protests, Friends’ Central began facing questions from the Quaker community over its decision to disinvite a Quaker teacher — one who was a professor of peace studies at a nearby Quaker college, no less.

Sellers, the school head, contended it was not a disinvitation, but an attempt to “pause” Atshan’s speaking pending discussion. Friends’ Central eventually re-extended the invitation — but by that point, it was too late.

“I let them know that I couldn’t accept the re‐invitation until the two teachers who invited me were reinstated,” Atshan told a Quaker publication in 2017. “Instead the teachers were offered a $5,000 severance package in exchange for being silent about how they were treated. They declined that offer, and the teachers were then fired permanently.”

Rather than reinstate the duo, the lawsuit alleges, Sellers and other officials defamed the teachers’ reputation by using them as “scapegoats” for their own poor decision-making.

Dee Spagnuolo, an attorney at Philly law firm Ballard Spahr, which is representing Friends’ Central, told Billy Penn the school maintains both teachers’ claims are baseless.

“Throughout the events in question, the school engaged in thorough and thoughtful Quaker decision making,” Spagnuolo said.

The ruling means the case may move toward settlement. If the case proceeds to trial, both parties will begin the evidence discovery process, in which the burden will be on Eure and Helwa to prove their case.

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