PHILADELPHIA – A federal lawsuit against Friends' Central School in Wynnewood brought on by two fired teachers can move forward, a federal judge recently ordered.
The dispute goes back to 2016 when the two teachers, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, met to start an equal rights club that was later renamed Peace and Equality for Palestine. They invited Swarthmore professor and Quaker, Sa'ed Atshan, to speak at the school. The decision to invite Atshan reportedly caused some controversy with family members of the school due to his ties to the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions or BDS movement against Israel.
A dispute between the teachers and the school over Atshan's appearance led to the suspension and later firing of the teachers. Their firing led to the lawsuit.
The school tried to have the case dismissed
In her recent opinion denying the school's motion to dismiss, Petrese B. Tucker, the judge overseeing the case, sided on some issues with the school on and other issues with the plaintiffs.
Attorneys for both sides issued statements regarding the judge's rulings.
Mark D. Schwartz, attorney for the teachers, was happy the case will go on.
"I am pleased that the judge has refused to dismiss the case, overwhelmingly reaffirming what was pled. It takes a certain special arrogance for a school. With the professed values that FCS says it maintains, to claim that it is not subject to the civil rights laws," Schwartz said.
An attorney for the school said she thinks they will overcome the remaining allegations.
"From the outset, we stated this complaint lacked merit and believe that an objective review of the facts will find that the remaining claims are equally meritless," said Dee Spagnuolo, attorney for the school. "Friends' Central does not intend to litigate the teachers' claims publicly and would ask that media outlets fact check statements about the judge's recent ruling before printing them. Throughout the events in question, the school engaged in thorough and thoughtful Quaker decision making. The school remains committed to building and maintaining an inclusive and diverse community, delivering an education that is intellectual, thoughtful and respects a wide range of viewpoints and experiences. This open and respectful approach is more relevant in today's world than ever before."
In the recent decision, the judge sided with the school when she said the plaintiffs have failed to plead any facts that show they were discriminated against based on their religion or sex.
She agreed that the plaintiffs gave scenarios where white coworkers were treated more fairly than minorities. But they were done by both male and female coworkers.
"A plaintiff's mere speculation that an employer would have treated her differently if she were not a member of a particular protected class does not sufficiently prove discrimination in the absence of evidence in the record," Tucker wrote in the court's opinion.
Where the court agreed with the plaintiffs was to cite communications Friends' Central made to the families and the media regarding the suspensions.
According to the court's opinion, these public statements, "'lowered plaintiffs' reputations in the community and prevented them from securing gainful employment."
The plaintiffs also alleged that Head of School, Craig Sellers, obstructed the investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by telling a teacher not comment. It was alleged that he told another teacher to "express support for the school" and direct questions to the school's communications office.
"Taking these allegations as true, Sellers' instruction may constitute an adverse employment action," Tucker wrote in her opinion.
Along with the same idea, the court said the plaintiffs failed to convince the court that communication between Friends' Central families that an event being held off-campus was not a school-sponsored event.
"Though plaintiffs categorize the communication as a 'malicious publication,' the statement merely informed parents that plaintiffs were planning to 'gather with some [Friends' Central] students off-campus' later that day and, because plaintiffs were on leave, that the event was not school-sponsored.
"The court is not convinced that such a communication can be seen as malicious or retaliatory. Surely, parents should be informed about the status of an off-campus event that their children may potentially participate in. The trivial inconvenience experienced by plaintiffs following this communication would not dissuade a reasonable employee from supporting their initial discrimination charge. This statement by [Friends' Central] does not constitute an adverse employment action," according to the opinion.