With Liberty And Justice For All

You “brought people up” and that’s kind of a funny thing. If an adult had asked me, I don’t know if I would have been able to explain “bringing people up.” What does that mean? [p.172] 1

The judicial committee was your tool for making people understand that it’s not that running down the hall is the crime of the century; but let’s say I’m walking down the hall with a tray full of fragile things and you run into me-that’s not something I really want to encounter. Learn to live your life in the context of not making your freedom impinge on the freedom of somebody else. I had learned it myself through the same process. I went from being a self-centered person to realizing the effect of my activities in a larger scope, and I would make adjustments to my behavior. [p.80]

Sudbury Valley School has always prided itself on its judicial system, which strives to be an embodiment of the principles of equality, fairness, justice, empowerment and compassion.2 The question is: do the students who attend Sudbury Valley feel that the judicial system really lives up to these principles? To try to answer this question, we turned to interviews of former students who attended the school during its first two decades. We discovered that they had quite a lot to say, and that some themes recurred frequently. We thought we would share what we found.

One after another, students expressed their sense that the proceedings of the judicial system were, by and large, fair.

I think the judicial system was really important, because it was so obviously justice that you were involved in. It wasn’t appealing to the great high Pooh-Bah who would do whatever, based on his or her own feeling that day. You knew that it was an honest and fair source a/justice and you were part of it yourself in your turn. And you knew how difficult it was. You were on both sides, or all sides, because you might be, at any given time, a witness, or a complainant, or the alleged violator, or a member of the committee. So you really understood what was going on.

Serving on the judicial committee was interesting, though it could be frustrating. One of the many valuable things that I learned from it is how difficult it is to figure out who did something in an “unknown” complaint. I think it is a useful lesson—you’re getting angry at the police for not being able to figure something out, you realize that it’s tough! [p.258]

Kids are cruel to other kids, but I think we were pretty fair. We were more than fair with all the people I can remember who were ongoing problems the whole time they were at school. [p.53]

There was no way not to get fair treatment if you got brought up. The committee investigated and they made some kind of report, and if the report was wrong, then it was not that important because it could get cleared up in the trial. There were enough checks and balances. It was quite difficult to get convicted of something that you weren’t guilty of.

This was important to me because I took advantage of it sometimes. I was a real stickler, and if people brought me up for things that I knew were wrong, but weren’t against the rules, I wasn’t about to let myself get convicted of breaking a rule that I know I hadn’t broken. [p.141]

The judicial system was basically fair, but it didn’t come up so much in most people’s lives. People were pretty well behaved. I think it was mostly due to the fact that if you don’t make a bunch of stupid rules or rules that don’t make sense, people don’t really have any problem with being well behaved. Most of the people who were brought up were pretty clearly out of line. They were really bothering other people or something. [p.222]

I certainly remember the judicial system. I got brought up quite a bit for noise and roughhousing and got my share of sentences. I was never too upset; everything was very fair. I don’t think the sentences were ever really tough. [p.306]

I felt the system was fair. Everyone has their days, and if you have a particularly autocratic committee that day you’re going to get one kind of judgment or sentencing and if you have another kind of body, you get another. That’s human nature. And that’s the way the legal system is also. [p.272]

Some people felt the judicial system was too lenient but when you’re on the receiving end, it doesn’t feel that lenient and I never felt like they were too soft. When you can, you get the message across with less harsh treatment. In some cases, I was treated better, maybe because of my past history, the length of time I was there, and just the type of person I was, but at the same time, for other things, I was treated more harshly, because of the type of person I was and my length of time there! At times that ·worked against me and at times it worked for me. [p.236]

Clearly, one of the main reasons that people experience the judicial system as fair is that everyone participates in it equally; another reason is that the procedures take place publicly.

At Sudbury Valley, when you did something bad, you were not taken into a private room and scolded The whole school dealt with it. So you’re sitting there, and you had gone out on the ice when it wasn’t safe and you were ten years old, and S. is giving you that glare, so that you feel it burning right through you, because when you’re little being in trouble is very traumatic. Although that is uncomfortable when you’re young, that’s how it is in the real world: they don’t take somebody who breaks the law and privately scold them in a corner; they have a public court. [p.236]

Everybody was on the judicial committee, so we were aware of the functioning of the judicial system in a much more intimate way than the other parts of the school. I think as a little kid, it’s more a part of your life than the other functions of the school. Not only are you using it, but you’re also taking part in running it at some point. [p.141]

I loved being on the judicial committee; we helped gather the evidence and wrote the reports. “Nothing but the facts, ma’am. Nothin’ but the facts.” I definitely got the feeling that every voice counts and that there was justice in the school; and that is what you’re supposed to feel in a democracy. [p.123]

I liked serving on the judicial committee. I felt it was a privilege. [p.205]

On the other hand sometimes it was a chore!

I liked serving on the judicial committee, but it was a kind of a pain in the ass. The hardest part was finding everybody. [p.172]

But it was usually not dull . . .

The judicial committee was “the news.” It was what was going on. Who made a mistake and who did they make it against and what were the consequences! Once I was involved in a little prank where three or four of us picked up and turned someone’s Volkswagen “Bug” around in the parking lot. That was an infringement on the owner’s rights which was brought before the judicial committee for punishment. [p.152]

Being on the judicial committee was really just a month long glimpse into all the dirty linen of people’s lives. [p.80]

The openness of the judicial system to every member of the community seemed to reduce its ability to inspire fear.

The very first time I was brought up, for whatever it was I did, Eileen was brought up on the same charge. And she said to me–this is a really good piece of advice, very solid—she said, “Whatever it is, if you did it, say so. Don’t lie.” So I did. And nothing happened. I don’t remember being really scared, but I must have been upset. [p.258]

As a defendant, I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. It’s more like the fear you experience when you’re going to talk in front of a group of people, than the fear that you experience when you’re afraid of bad things that are going to happen to you. I was always more afraid of being embarrassed than being convicted. In general, it was important for me to learn that I could defend myself and convince people that I was right. [p.141]

The very existence of the judicial system gave a sense of fundamental “safeness” to the atmosphere of the school for the younger children.

There was sometimes violence, but it was rare. The people who kept the peace going were the students more than the staff. It was a combined effort. It wasn’t like the staff laid down the law, because the laws were made by everybody and everybody enforced them. Even the littlest kids could go and write a complaint. [p.54]

I wasn’t scared of older kids in general. There were some scary people there, at times. But it was more the reputation of an older kid being scary: people would talk about something that somebody had done, or was capable of doing, or that somebody might do to you. But I never felt it directed at me. I never felt in any kind of fear of anybody. [p.53]

There was a whole world for the little kids in the playroom, and at the pond. Then we would have “the invasion of the big kids.” The big kids were scary. Some of them were mean. They’d come into the playroom, see what was going on, and maybe disturb games that were going on, knocking over blocks that were being built up, teasing people. Bernard was a big threat, but we sort of enjoyed it; we would antagonize each other. He wanted to play with the little kids, and we weren’t very intimidated by him because he was close to our age and you could tell that he probably just wanted to engage us with his teasing, not always to destroy what we were doing. So he would come and we would get a kick out of teasing him back, even though we were kind of scared. Sometimes he’d get out of hand, but we had recourse when he was mean, because he would stay there, and then we would tell somebody and the situation would be resolved. Or we would make a judicial complaint and it would go through that process. But with some of the other bigger kids it was mostly quick mean things, and they wouldn’t stay around for the repercussions; or it was more subtle. We kind of had our own little world going, and they’d just come in and bug us and then leave. They were a little scary, but we didn’t really feelwe were in danger. We definitely felt secure. [p.3]

Or, in a nutshell:

I remember being young and thinking, “OK I’m going to bring this person up. I have a legitimate complaint against them and they’re going to get in trouble for it and they should.” [p.180]

On the other hand, from the perspective of the older kids, the younger children were sometimes somewhat of a trial.

It seems like it was mostly the little kids that got involved in the judicial system to any great extent. [p.222]

The judicial committee worked ok, except that you’d have these little pain-in-the-neck eight-year-olds bringing up somebody for grabbing a shovel out of their hand while they were playing in the sandbox and that was kind of stupid. That could have been rectified in other ways. I think for the major stuff the committee was very effective. [p.92]

And sometimes the system could even be used to harass people, just like the real world.

The judicial system ·worked reasonably well. The only fault I could find is that certain individuals accessed the judicial system at Sudbury Valley for things that could easily be handled outside the system. There were people at the school who perhaps did not waste their own time, because maybe they learned something and went on to become lawyers or judges, but they wasted a hell of a lot of other people’s time. There were occasions when the system was used as a tool to get back at people. The same way the system is used, in the broad sense of the word, here in the United States: if you want to bother somebody, if you’ve got the time and the money, all you do is sue them. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, necessarily, if that’s what you want to do and you’re willing to commit your time and money to it. I very seldom brought anyone up at school because I’m a big believer in working things out face to face, person to person. [p.336]

The judicial system has always been an important part of the socialization experience that goes on at school. Generally, students felt that the community was patient and tolerant in seeing new people through their adjustment processes.

Sometimes, kids were just in a transition stage. People at school were very forgiving and they put up with a lot from kids who were in a transition. We were always giving them another chance and they were always screwing up. And really severely; on purpose it seemed. We gave them so many chances. After a while, if it was destructive to the school, we had to think about the effect on the whole school. [p.53]

You’d have heart to heart talks with kids, because what are you going to do about a kid who’s always bugging somebody? It’s not like you can throw them out of school. Hopefully after a year of telling these kids to try to be nice, you would make a dent and they would slowly become socialized and realize that the obnoxious behavior patterns that they had been in at home or at another school weren’t working with this group of kids who wanted to relate to them as equals. [p.80]

You’d really have to push to the edge before anything serious happened. We had some cases where people got suspended, but people thought about it and were really concerned about anybody who would get into trouble a lot. Things didn’t happen lightly. [p.306]

Members of the community felt both the implied responsibility and the sense of empowerment bestowed by the judicial system. These feelings permeate the life of the school and profoundly affect each new generation of students.

The judicial system took care of the problems when common sense amongst the staff and the students themselves didn’t, but the feedback you got from everybody was more important than the judicial system. I think people respond much better to somebody saying, “Look, this is not good.” Or just by someone being a role model, showing you how to interact and what’s good and what’s not. When someone crossed the line once too many times or flagrantly, then the judicial system came into play. But there was peer pressure to act responsibly and that was a big word at Sudbury Valley, responsibility. I was nine years old and I was being trusted with things that I never thought I would be, so the pressure I felt came more from within me than from the judicial system. [p.236]

The thing that I respected the most about SVS was the fact that aside from a suspension, which I never actually got, the school never notified the parents. I was on my own to deal with the problems that I created or didn’t create at Sudbury Valley and it wasn’t, “Well, Mr. Jones, you’d better come in and have a serious talk.” [p.236]

I was probably about fifteen or sixteen when I realized how that part of the school actually worked. It still wasn’t something that I was involved in, but it made me realize how the whole democratic system worked in the school, the scale that it was on. I started getting interested in how the school ran. That’s when the judicial committee’s procedures were revised. I had a lot of input when they rewrote the lawbook. [p.105]

In my teens, I became interested in the administration of the school. I don’t know why, really. I remember thinking that it was fun to be involved with certain things, like the judicial stuff and the trials. I also thought that the more people that were involved with administration, the better. I felt some sort of civic duty to be involved with it to a certain extent. Everybody felt loyal to the school, but people did different things about it. I don’t think I felt more loyal to the school than my friends who were not interested in administration. [p.137]

The laws were enforced, and for the most part if you went against them you paid the price, you either were fined or you had to do something. Most kids abided by the rules. Of course, we had our typical trouble-makers, who thrived on going against the rules, but not for the most part. [p.180]

When I had a sentence, I respected it. Absolutely. If I was sentenced to not go in a part of the school, I didn’t. There would be too many witnesses that wanted your ass back in the sling if you screwed up, and I respected that. [p.172]

Being an official in the school’s legal system conferred an even greater sense of responsibility, as well as the satisfaction of achieving something important for the community.

I was about fifteen when I became a Judicial Clerk. I wanted to know who was doing what, and when, and I figured I should be a clerk and really learn it more because that’s also when I started saying to myself, “Hm, you like this type of stuff. Maybe you could do something with it.” I’ve always been intrigued by criminal justice. It’s interesting to see how people’s minds work against laws, or with laws. [p.180]

I was Law Clerk when I was thirteen. The work was awesome. The judicial system is streamlined now compared to the way it was then. We kept track of everything by hand then. There was a listing of each trial by trial number, and there was a listing by charge, and there were listings for each individual too. So there were all these records to be kept, and the first time I had to do it I was overwhelmed; it took getting used to so I wouldn’t forget to put something down someplace. I remember sitting at the table with all this stuff and just trying to figure out what to do with it all and where to find what I needed and where to put everything. [p.138]

Being Law Clerk was the closest I’ve gotten to be a lawyer yet! Being active in all those things gave me a sense that you can do anything you want if you really want to. I remember, Dan nominated me for Law Clerk. I didn’t know about it. I was reading the School Meeting Record and there were nominations for Clerks and there was me for Law Clerk. I went up to him and said, “How could you do this, what gave you the right to go and suggest me for this?” And then he just turned on the charm and said, “Well, you’d be perfect for it, you’d love it.” And I said, “Yeah, I guess you’re probably right. OK, thanks.” And so I gratefully accepted the nomination. [p.240]

Sometimes, the responsibility could go to your head!

When I was a clerk, it was twenty years of hard labor all the time. I’m sure we were too tough in the beginning; we ran wild. But we served a lot of different terms. A staff member sat in on the meeting, but WE held power. We finally settled down, probably when enough people were pissed off at us at the same time, because we had punished just about everybody we knew, and we became political outcasts. At the same time as we were being unpopular, we were being popular, because people knew who we were—whether they liked us or not, they knew who we were. [p.105]

Being Judicial Clerks was something! Eugene and I became dictators. You had to run for the position. So we got a media campaign going. Eugene got along with most people, but he had a lot of right-wing views, and a lot of people couldn’t deal with that. He wanted to be a mercenary. That was his goal, and I’d say, “Yuh, that’s good. That’s a good thing for you to do.” He was another World War II buff, and that was a common link between us.

We used to carry around our complaint forms all the time. “Bring people up!” What a feeling of power! I’m sure we misused it. People hated to see us around at the beginning because we were just out to get people. I think eventually we got bored with it. It became too much of a job. There was responsibility involved! [p.105]

The Judicial committee was fair, by and large, but I don’t think there was ever a happy medium in sentencing. They were always too lenient or overreacted. It was either a slap on the wrist or twenty years of hard labor. I don’t know why that was. [p.105]

In the early days of the school, many judicial matters, after being investigated by a committee, were handled directly on the floor of the School Meeting, which was held on Mondays. This lent a special flavor to School Meeting proceedings.

School Meeting was the place that we always used to go on Mondays to find out what kind of trouble we were in and how they were going to punish us. We usually only went if we were getting in trouble. We had no idea what else the School Meeting was: all they did was hand out sentences and talk about boring things, and we had no idea what they were talking about. But I also always felt that I could have input into the school if I had wanted to. Anytime . It felt like my vote counted: “I have a vote.” [p.105]

I never brought anybody up for something that didn’t harm me or didn’t bother me, but if somebody bothered me, I brought them up. The hardest thing I ever had to do was bring up Norman for giving me a wedgie, when I was about eleven. I had to get up in front of the whole School Meeting and describe the pain and embarrassment of it and suffer through it again on the floor, which I did. [p.236]

One student recalled the birth of the judicial system in the first winter of the school, a process which involved the whole school community.

In the early days here was also a sense of time to burn. Before anyone knew how to run the school at all, we used to spend wonderfully lengthy amounts of time in School Meetings, or creating the judicial system, because there was no sense of how to get these into an efficient framework. I personally found it very, very exciting. You would have School Meetings that would last from one to five and then begin the next day and last from one to five. And it might go on two or three days out of a five day week. [p.69]

Twelve years later, the system was revamped by the School Meeting, after much deliberation in which students played a major role.

I remember when the school changed the structure of the judicial committee. Bringing that change about was a very democratic process, where policies were being decided by all those who cared to decide the matter. I was active in the transition and then I was a judicial clerk once or twice. To me the way the old system worked made much more sense. The new judicial committee had too much power; but the school needed the change and it was being done for all the right reasons. And it worked out ok. [p.272]

I was always very interested in the law and the way the law is administered and kept up and was always finding new ways to either challenge something about the judicial system or defend something about it. I worked with Saul on the revision of the Law Book. We did the original draft that changed the structure of the judicial committee, when it was being flooded one winter with tons and tons of complaints, way more than it could handle. We went through about a week of just meeting. We figured out as many safeguards as we could to make the system much faster and more efficient, but still not railroad people through.

The new system kind of compacted everything a little bit. We had to squish a couple of the steps together here and there until we got one group being judge, jury and executioner, whereas all the old judicial committee ever did was find out the facts and report to the School Meeting; then at the meeting, if there looked like enough information and a probable cause, somebody could offer to prosecute. Then there would often be a debate about that: “Do we need to prosecute him for this reason?”

The old structure was so very fair, and if you could just have eliminated the fact that it took too long, it was perfect. It was as if someone said, “OK, you’ve got three oranges. That’s too many oranges. Which one of those do you want to get rid of?” Now you want all three oranges. They are three great oranges just the way they are, but there’s a little bit too many and you can’t finish them all, so you’re going to have to give one up. And you don’t want to. I was the champion of the appeals. If somebody was found guilty, I wanted them to have a chance to have it heard by the whole student body, just as it always was. I didn’t want one group to become the vigilantes in the school, sitting up in that room deciding everybody’s fate. If somebody honestly feels that it’s not fair, they should have a chance to have it heard and, that’s what I was real concerned about. I made sure that stayed. [p.236]

Occasionally, when matters cannot be settled by the Judicial Committee, a full-fledged trial is held. Trials are relatively rare and have always been exciting events in the life of the school.

We used to have trials sometimes. They were big social events, and everybody would come and watch and some people would be on the jury. Once I was on the jury for something that my brother was being tried for and the prosecutor asked me if I thought I was biased. I was really little and on the jury for my brother’s trial! That was pretty funny. And I said no, that I wasn’t. [p.53]

I can remember the first time I had to go around and notify people of trials. The scary thing was talking to a little kid who didn’t already understand what was going on. Lots of times complaints could go through, testimony could be taken, and School Meeting could vote a trial for some kid who was new to the school and still didn’t really understand what was happening. [p.138]

I enjoyed trials. They were like Perry Mason. You could be a juror and that was really fun. In a trial a relatively small and idiotic thing could be turned into a really exciting thing because someone would be maintaining their innocence. [p.80]

The judicial system was an interesting center of conflict in the school. Especially trials. All the time that I was involved, trials were very rare, so that having one was kind of a special occasion. There would be a lot of buildup and people would talk about it, and then there would be people arguing their cases and trying to convince each other, and it would come down to what the jury thought at the end, so that was always really fascinating. I think the drama of it was very interesting to me. I mean, the justice of it was nice, but I don’t think that was interesting in and of itself. [p.141]

The first time that I ever got brought up, I was involved in a big, huge game of war up at the barn and we all were up in the attic and in the stables and all in these off-limits territories. This was when the barn was dilapidated, really nothing there. At the time, I didn’t really understand what it meant to get brought up: “Brought up to where?” was what I always thought. And Danny was prosecuting because we all obviously did break this rule. But Harry decided to defend us somehow on some technicality, so I said, “Ok, I’ll plead not guilty.” Alan, who was the Law Clerk, kept coming up to us and saying, “You have to plead guilty. You were there.” So we pled guilty and Harry goes, “WHY’D YOU PLEAD GUILTY?” Here’s this nine year old kid and people are saying, “Say yes,” “Say no,” “Say yes”, “Say no.” Finally I ended up going with Harry and he got us all off on the technicality. I was like, “YEAH,” because I had figured out by then that we were sneaking under the wire of this law. Everybody was caught. There must have been fifteen of us or something and we all got brought up and then Harry got us all off, and Alan and Danny were pissed, and that’s when I said, “I like this law stuff.” After that we certainly didn’t get caught when we were doing those things! [p.236]

Over the years the judicial system and the community’s inherent sense of rightness have become inextricably intertwined. The situation could hardly be better described than in the following:

I don’t know: is it the judicial system that created the atmosphere, or was it just that the atmosphere was there and the judicial system kind of kept it in line? I don’t think the judicial system itself had that much to do with the atmosphere in the school. It was just a way of putting a lid on problems, and the control came from it being there. [p. 306]


1. All page citations are to Kingdom of Childhood: Growing up at Sudbury Valley School, edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg, from interviews by Hanna Greenberg (Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, 1994.

2. For a discussion and history of the judicial system, see “On Law and Order” in The Sudbury Valley School Experience, 3rd ed. (Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, 1993) p. 190.

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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.