We realize that our school’s philosophy is a very unique one, so we will occasionally share articles that inspire our work.
By Daniel Greenberg (www.sudval.org)
“With Liberty and Justice for All”
Getting a fair shake is hard in any society. In schools, it is often impossible.
I’ll never forget the time I was eleven, sitting through an algebra class, bored and fighting sleep. I stretched my arms over my head to wake up. Unfortunately, outside my consciousness, the teacher — a gruff martinet — had been ranting angrily at the class and had just shouted, “Which one of you guys is a wise-guy?” My upstretched arms seemed to make me a volunteer. Three days’ detention followed.
Most of us have had similar experiences. For twelve years of school, I was terrified of the arbitrary authority of the teachers and administrators, from which there was rarely appeal. All of us at school were determined Sudbury Valley would be different.
When the school first opened, nobody knew how to go about setting up a system that would maintain order fairly. The only school we knew of that seemed to make a successful stab at this problem was A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, where they worked out conflicts at their community meetings.
So we tried taking care of things at the School Meeting. The second item on the agenda, after announcements, was the “gripe session,” where problems were to be handled.
Predictably, as the weeks wore on, the gripe sessions became longer and longer. Soon, they overshadowed all the other business. We found ourselves holding three and four hour meetings, then two or more meetings a week. Most of the time was devoted to hearing an endless array of complaints about what this student did, or those kids may have done, or that person said he would do.
Worse than the time we lost was our sense of frustration. We tried to be fair, but were we succeeding? Gripe sessions consisted of charges and countercharges, often highly emotional, always picturesque. We rarely had the feeling we were getting to the bottom of things, unless we spent an inordinate amount of time at it. The climax came when the school underwent its baptism by fire in the fall of its opening year. It took a gripe session lasting three solid days to sort things out!
Something had to be done. For some time, we had been looking around for a clue to how to proceed. There was no satisfactory model.
It finally dawned on us that our problem was just the same as any community’s problem. And the community had spent thousands of years and immeasurable brain power to devise a solution. Over the centuries, systems of jurisprudence had been developed in different cultures to assure fairness in handling gripes.
We looked hard at our national tradition and studied its essential features. Before long, we assembled the elements of the school’s judicial system.
In a nutshell, these elements are simple: there has to be a thorough and impartial investigation of all charges, each of which is specific as to what rule was allegedly broken; there has to be a fair trial before a jury of peers, with full safeguards for the rights of the defendant and with respect for the rules of evidence; and there has to be a fair system of sentencing. Through it all, the personal rights enjoyed by every adult citizen of our nation have to be safeguarded in the school, even though the Supreme Court has held that the United States Constitution does not extend these rights to minors.
The judicial system was set up in the early winter of our first year. It is entirely under the supervision of the School Meeting. There have been changes and adjustments over the years, but the fundamental outlines have remained constant.
The system of justice at Sudbury Valley is our pride and joy. It runs smoothly, handling well over a hundred complaints a year, sometimes ten or twenty a week, without a hitch, year in, year out. Rarely has its fairness been criticized by any member of the school community.
The heart of the system is the group that does the investigating. This is called the Judicial Committee, or “JC” for short. On it serve kids of all ages, a cross-section of the school, drawn by lot, and joined at each meeting by a randomly chosen staff member. It is chaired by a Judicial Clerk elected by the School Meeting four times a year.
The JC meets several times a week. It starts its work with a complaint someone has written, alleging some rule was broken.
Using every avenue open to it, the JC investigates the complaint. It calls witnesses, sifts the conflicting testimony, until it comes up with its best version of what happened.
Since everyone is part of the process, justice at Sudbury Valley belongs to everyone. This has practical consequences that can be seen every day. People rarely lie deliberately to the JC, even though they may give widely differing versions of what happened. For the most part, everyone cooperates.
Most interesting is the way the kids have learned to differentiate society’s needs from personal matters. Everyone knows that the school’s functioning as an institution depends on a general acquiescence to the rules passed by the School Meeting. That’s the business side of it. That means, for each individual, that they all have to help enforce the laws, to judge fairly and testify truthfully, even if the matter involves a friend. When the official judicial process is over, the personal side takes over. Friendships resume as before, with no interruption.
Over and over again, I have seen close friends clash bitterly in a JC matter, only to emerge from the session and play or work together as if nothing had happened. For new students, especially those transfering from other schools, this is the hardest part of Sudbury Valley to take. They have gotten used to an “us versus them” mentality at school, where anyone who testifies against a fellow student is a “rat.” Sometimes, it takes a while for new kids to adjust, but in the end, virtually all of them do. It couldn’t be otherwise.
The act of writing a complaint for the JC is called, in school vernacular, “bringing someone up.” None of us remembers how this phrase was born, although there are lots of theories. Some think it dates to the days when the JC always met on the second floor, and people were brought upstairs to appear before it.
Not long ago, one five year old said to another, who was new at school, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’ll bring you up.” “Then I’ll come right down,” came the ready answer.
The illiterate ones at school have to collar a scribe to write their complaints from dictation, a practice far from extinct in the world at large. Usually, older students help, but the staff is always available for this service.
Occasionally, someone tries to misuse the judicial apparatus for personal ends. They do this by filing a stream of complaints against someone — harrassment, it’s called. It doesn’t take long for the JC to realize what is going on. There can only be two reasons for a student to be “brought up” repeatedly: either the student is being a pile of trouble, or the student is being harrassed. The JC deals firmly with students who harrass their fellows.
At times, kids will file a complaint in the heat of passion when there has been some sort of an argument or high-tension game. By the time the investigation is begun, everyone has cooled down. The matter is then easily mediated by the JC, or even dismissed. Often, the cooling-off takes place before the complaint has been completed, as it’s being written. I recorded one such session recently, one that was not at all atypical:
“When You Were Young…”
A True Story
“Will you help us write a complaint?”
I was startled from a mid-day reverie as I sat on the couch outside the office. Standing over me, peering at me somewhat hesitantly, were Avery (age 9) and Sharon (7). “Maybe we should find Marge.”
I looked at them for a moment. “What for?” I asked. “Skip (13) and Michael (8) were disrupting our activities in the quiet room,” came the answer. Idly wondering whether I, in turn, should file a complaint against them for their activities in the quiet room, I answered, “Sure,” and we marched into the empty office.
It was 1:30. Virtually all the staff was closeted in the newly refurbished stereo room, where they had been meeting with interested students since 11:00 to decide the future use of the room. My task at hand seemed trivial in comparison. Nevertheless, I sat at the office desk, pen in hand, looking as official as I could. Avery stood close by my right, Sharon leaned over the edge of the desk to my left, both watching every move I made, every word I wrote. This was to be a serious enterprise.
Complaint form before me, I turned to Avery and said, “Start at the beginning. The very beginning.”
“I probably shouldn’t have called them names,” said Avery, a bit worried. “That was probably wrong.”
“Start from the beginning. What happened?”
“Jim (8) and I were playing in the barn alone. Skip and Michael came in and started teasing Dennis (12).”
“Dennis was there too?” I asked.
“He came in. Then they came. I called them names to protect Dennis. I did it to help him.”
Wondering why Dennis needed Avery’s protection, I asked him to go on with the story.
“Then they chased us. Skip took my hat, and we ran out of the barn. Daniel (7), Jim and I escaped.”
“Daniel was there too?” I asked, rewriting the story yet another time.
“Dennis, Michael and Skip chased us. I got away, grabbed my hat, then Skip picked me up, dragged me back to the barn, but we all escaped –.”
“Just a minute,” I interrupted, sensing that I was losing any semblance of understanding of what had taken place. “Why was Dennis chasing you too, if you were protecting him?”
“Then we tried to run to the main building and they trapped Jim in the sports closet and Daniel ran and told me and I went to rescue Jim. I made believe I was helping them lock him in but I didn’t really and he escaped and I was in but I got out –.”
At this moment a happy and calm Jim walked into the office and stood by Sharon. He certainly didn’t look to me like someone who had just endured a harrowing experience.
Avery was really into it. I turned to him and asked, “Did you have a good time?” He laughed heartily. “Yes,” he said. “How about you?” I asked Jim. “Yes. I don’t want to write a complaint.”
“But they disrupted out activity,” Avery protested.
“What activity?” I asked.
“The magic show.”
I hadn’t heard of any magic shows that day. Knowing I was letting myself in for it, I said innocently, “What magic show?”
“Sharon and Cindy’s (7),” answered Avery.
A cheerful Daniel had joined us by now. Sharon, who had been silently watchful throughout, perked up at the mention of her name. “We tried to kick them out of the room, but they wouldn’t go,” she said with excitement, “then we pushed them.” “And I tried to get them to go,” chimed in Avery. Daniel was smiling. Jim was somber.
“Can I tear up the complaint?” Jim said.
Sharon grinned. Daniel smiled. I asked Avery, “What would happen if the complaint remained?”
“They would stop doing it,” he answered with a great show of confidence in the effectiveness of the school’s judicial system.
“Do you want them to stop?” I asked.
“No,” he answered with a hearty laugh.
Jim tore up the complaint. General satisfaction. Then Avery turned to me as he was preparing to leave and, with a broad smile, asked me, “When you were young, did you have such adventures?”
The fact is, everyone gets a fair shake at Sudbury Valley. Everyone rests confident in the knowledge that freedom here is protected by a system of justice that is blind to age, sex, or status.