The Heart of the School, Two Takes

Take One

If you happen to be sitting in the large front room called “the sewing room,” you might notice that every day at 11:00 a.m., eight people walk into the adjacent book-lined “seminar room.” What you are seeing is the gathering of the school’s Judicial Committee (JC).

They are a motley collection of individuals: seven students ranging in age from five to eighteen and one staff member. Five of the students have been chosen by the School Meeting Chairman to serve for a month. Two students serve as JC Clerks. They are elected by the School Meeting four times a year, and their terms average 2 ½ months. Staff members serve one day at a time, rotating among the entire staff. Often, a few more people straggle in, or sit in the room awaiting the group’s arrival. They can be anyone curious about the day’s proceedings, or waiting their turn to participate.

It never ceases to amaze me how these people show up on their own, only occasionally needing some reminder. Why do they come? What leads them to drop whatever they are doing and spend their precious time - sometimes two or more hours at a stretch - participating in the meeting of a committee which, except for the clerks, they have not volunteered to join?

What, in fact, does the JC do that attracts such a degree of interest and loyalty in the community?

The answer to these questions lies in the core principles on which the school is based. These echo the founding principles of our country. First is the declaration that every human being is endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that the primary component of society is the individual, whose freedom to live a life of personal fulfillment is the precious birthright society is pledged to protect.

The second core principle is that society must protect those rights by means of a government established by “the consent of the governed.” In Sudbury Valley, this is the School Meeting, in which children enjoy the same status as adults, and are keenly aware of the uniqueness of this privilege in the current cultural environment. The School Meeting creates the rules that set boundaries on individual freedoms, boundaries that are supposed to enhance the protection of those freedoms from erosion.

The third core principle is that a fair judicial system, with the power to oversee the actions of individuals and legislatures alike, must exist as the guarantor of the other two. Declarations of rights, and laws passed by legislatures, are merely words inscribed in official documents. Judicial decisions are where those words take on a meaningful reality. In our daily lives we depend on the fairness of our courts, and we take seriously instances where we think that fairness has been violated. We also depend on the openness of court proceedings to allow us to monitor that fairness. In a very real sense, the courts are the heart of our democratic society.

And so it is at school. The JC is the place where the School Meeting’s rules meet the reality of everyday life at Sudbury Valley. For example, it is the JC that decides, instance by instance, the practical meaning of the rule: “No one may knowingly infringe on anyone’s right to be at school, free of verbal or physical harassment.” What actions constitute “an infringement on rights?” The members of the JC, representing the community as a whole, make such decisions case-by-case, day by day. They fully understand the importance of their commitment to fairness, and are always prepared to spend as much time and effort as they need to reach their conclusions. The onlookers come to watch, and the School Meeting later reviews the JC’s reports, but the burden of preserving the trust of the community lies on the shoulders of these eight individuals who render their decisions.

That is why these eight people come, day by day, at the appointed time, to serve. They understand clearly that the JC is the heart of the school.

Take Two

Posted on Monday March 10th, 2014
by Mimsy Sadofsky

I read Dan’s post, “The Heart of the School,” with great interest. It was true, all true. And yet for me there is another overwhelming reason why the Judicial Committee is the heart of Sudbury Valley.

We explain to kids how the school works as an institution when they come for an interview. And yet they never really believe us. For example, we talk about treating everybody in the community fairly, as equals. Every school they have gone to, if they are school-age, has talked about fairness. But there was no fairness. They were rarely listened to and certainly had no say in the consequences of whatever happened. The “authorities” had all the power. There was a principal’s office and the person there figured out how to handle all disciplinary problems. Parents were often informed of the most minor things.

So most kids walk into the JC meeting, on first encounter, with fear and trepidation. An older friend might need to go with them if they are little, or they swallow their fear if they are older.

What happens blows the kid’s mind. This is where the rubber (of a democratic structure) really meets the road. And for the first time, her own real power dawns on the student. No one assumes your guilt if you have a complaint against you. People ask questions and listen calmly for however long it takes to unravel a story. Sometimes really simple sounding complaints, upon investigation, yield a long and intricately tangled yarn. Sometimes the truth comes out as, “Oh, yeah, I remember now,” from someone who didn’t remember until the scene was thoroughly painted and all the participants gathered. Words like, “I guess I did; yes it was my fault,” trip lightly, suddenly, from the tongue of a child who walked in fearful of retribution and not being heard fairly. A child who never meant to tell the truth, being so used to the big cover ups she mounted at her other school.

I personally think that it is here, and not in School Meeting, that students realize their empowerment. It is here that everyone sees that everyone has a voice and a vote – whether they are the students who wrote the complaints and are seeking justice and being carefully listened to, or the students named in the complaints who may or may not have broken a rule, or the students who are chosen to serve on JC for a month.

Everyone sees that no votes are taken until the story is out. Everyone sees that people can only be charged with having broken an actual rule, not something someone might wish was a rule. Everyone. Everyone, after one or a few contacts with the JC, knows the score: what they say counts. They are listened to as carefully as staff, as teens, as four year olds. Oh, and they see that staff are subject to the same rules. This is empowerment.