When I went to traditional high school, the place reeked of rebellion. Contempt for the establishment was a badge of honor and students impressed each other with tales of misdeeds. Some circles were more obedient than others, sure, but there wasn't a kid in the building who didn't brag about "getting away with it," whether "it" was skipping a class, vandalizing a wall, or missing an assignment. School administrators struggled to maintain control of their students, not because students didn’t understand right and wrong, but because they purposely undermined any sense of order that might have existed. The stereotype of a teenager is that of a troublemaker and an anarchist, a person not to be trusted.

That's probably why people are so surprised to see that a judicial system run by students, like the one at Sudbury Valley, works so well. To understand how the night-and-day difference in attitude can make sense, one needs to understand the immense cultural differences between traditional school settings and the community at Sudbury Valley.

It starts when the rules themselves start. In most schools, that’s an entirely exclusive process- exclusive of teachers, exclusive of parents, but most notably exclusive of any student involvement. At Sudbury Valley, a rule might start out as an idea, a conversation over lunch, or a complaint the Judicial Committee has trouble resolving. But before anything goes on the books, that rule is a motion in the School Meeting. The motion is discussed by School Meeting members- students and staff- and voted on by the same community that it will govern. That way, there isn’t a rule in place that the majority truly disagrees with. Students who act out are acting out against their own- or at least their peers’ own- behavioral standards. In this atmosphere, rule breaking becomes unfavorable in much the same way that complying with teacher’s wishes is looked down upon in other schools.

The absence of a culture that encourages rebellion against school rules is a result of the general autonomy enjoyed by students. Making trouble isn’t the only way to make a name for yourself, to be an individual, or to find entertainment. When students have the freedom to pursue their passions like SVS students do, their focuses narrow in on themselves, their friends, and their interests rather than the cheap fun of destructive behavior. The responsibility of self-governance and freedom that is granted to SVS students creates a community that rejects repeated and conscious efforts against order.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.