Principles, not Principals: the Judicial Committee

A few years ago, I wrote a dozen posts as a education blogger for Change.org. Since they’ve recently taken down much of their older content, I’ll be resurrecting some of those posts here, in lightly edited form. The following was originally uploaded on April 29, 2009. Please note that while the specifics of the process vary, the essence of the Judicial Committee (JC) is consistent across Sudbury schools.

Previously I’ve argued that the best learning occurs when students direct their own education. Today I want to go one step further and say that not only is learning better, but discipline as well.

At Sudbury schools, adults do not lay down the law; there is no principal to whom students are sent. Alleged rule violations are instead handled by groups in which students form the majority.

JC Clerk: Okay, our first case: Greg wrote up Barry for A3.1. This happened yesterday, in the Main Room, around 3pm. The brief description: “Barry called me a doofus. When I told Barry to stop, he asked, ‘What’s the matter, doofus? Can’t handle the truth, doofus?'” Is there any discussion on hearing this case? All in favor?
JC members: Aye.

The JC process goes something like this: when disagreements can’t be handled informally, or when the violator is unknown, anyone can fill out a written complaint—a simple form asking for such details as the time and place, the people involved, and a brief description of the incident.

An elected clerk—usually a student—files those forms and brings them to the daily meeting of a committee that they also chair. Comprising students of varying ages and one staff member, JC’s a lot like jury duty: when it’s your turn to serve, or when you’re called to testify, you’re required to do so (though people don’t have to testify against themselves). JC is one of the few aspects of Sudbury schools where participation is not optional.

JC Clerk: Barry, do you agree with Greg’s version of what happened?
Barry: Hmm…mostly. Okay, so I was in the Main Room, eating lunch, when Greg and Josh and Alex came over and sat near me. They were being all loud and stupid. I told them to pipe down, but Greg said, “I’ll pipe you down.” So then I said “doofus” kind of under my breath. Greg asked, “What did you say?” and, I don’t know, I just got pissed. So I said…you know, what I said.

Each JC questions the complainant, alleged violator, and witnesses. Weighing ‘he said’ versus ‘she said,’ they determine what happened and either drop the case or vote to charge one or more people with breaking a rule. Once charged, people enter a plea: ‘not guilty’ means a trial before a new set of jurors, while ‘guilty’ pleas lead to sentencing, also voted on by the committee.

JC member #1: I think we should charge both Greg and Barry.
JC member #2: Why?
JC member #1: Well, Barry’s obvious. But Greg was disrespectful when he said “I’ll pipe
you down.” Come to think of it, Greg, Josh, and Alex were all being loud.
JC member #3: But they stopped being loud right away. So I don’t think that’s part of the case. It’s about disrespect, and yeah, I agree: both Barry and Greg should be charged.

Staff can be written up as well as students: everyone is expected to abide by the same democratically-passed rules. More fascinating still is seeing people of all ages engaged in the sometimes painstaking work of fact-finding and judging whether a given action amounts to rule-breaking—and if so, how it should be handled. The creativity of even the youngest in cutting through the clutter of what happened and what ought to be done is often inspiring.

JC Clerk: Okay, sentencing…
JC member #4: How many priors do they have?
JC Clerk: Barry only has one A3.1; Greg has four.
JC member #1: I move that Barry and Greg can’t have verbal or physical contact with each other for the rest of the day and all of tomorrow, and that Greg has to do Barry’s chore today.
JC Clerk: Is there any more discussion? All in favor say ‘aye.’
JC members: Aye.
JC Clerk: Motion carries, 4-0. Greg, do you understand and accept your sentence?
Greg: It’s not fair! Why I do have to do his chore?
JC Clerk: Well, you have four priors. Do you want to appeal your sentence to School Meeting?
Greg: No.

Most of the rule violations that make it to JC are of the ‘everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten’ variety: messes, name-calling, noise, running indoors. Common sentences include staying out of a room or away from a person, doing someone’s cleaning chore, or paying a small fine. Sentencing sometimes involves  restitution and/or reducing the probability of the incident being repeated. Occasionally an individual case will be serious enough, or someone’s record long enough, to warrant referral to School Meeting for a more serious consequence, such as suspension.

But again, what has impressed me most over the past fifteen years has been students’ capacity for dispensing thoughtful, fair justice. They take this responsibility seriously, and they do an outstanding job. Rather than being given lectures and abstract exercises, these students grapple with things like ethics, problem-solving, and civics in a context that’s immediate and concrete.

Empowering and effective, the Judicial Committee reinforces the sense of responsibility that makes possible the tremendous freedom of Sudbury schools. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to work in a place where respect is the order of the day, and where order is ably enforced by the students themselves.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Principles, not Principals: the Judicial Committee

  1. Here’s an exchange from the Facebook comment thread for this post (1 of 3)…

    Laura: Thanks for sharing, Bruce. I have a question. Do students always take the JC seriously? I think about the high school students I taught (in traditional schools). Imagining them reading what was said verbatim (for example, “then Greg said, ‘I’ll pipe you down,”), I imagine the entire JC could easily find it hilarious, and break out into laughter about what happened. Also, I think if the JC found the issue funny, they might just fall apart into a kind of silliness, maybe never resolving the issue, or perhaps creating a “joke” kind of punishment, like making Barry wear a t-shirt with “Doofus” written on it, or something like that, which would further humiliate him. Does that kind of thing ever happen in your schools? How do you prevent it (or why do you think it doesn’t become an issue)?

    • (Facebook comment thread, 2 of 3)

      Bruce: Laura, thanks for the question. People are still people, of course, and certain cases or statements or situations can provoke less than helpful reactions. That said, perhaps the most amazing thing is that, yes, the students take JC quite seriously indeed. We all realize that without something like JC, the amazing freedom we enjoy just wouldn’t be possible, so everyone takes responsibility for keeping it (or getting it back) on track. Someone might suggest a “joke” sentence, but only as just that — a joke — and I’d expect the JC to quickly come back to order. Also, whenever someone doesn’t take JC seriously (e.g., not doing a sentence, being disruptive during meetings), that’s dealt with promptly and thoroughly.

      • (Facebook comment thread, 3 of 3)

        Vanessa: As a graduate of a Sudbury school I can say the students take it very seriously. I think they understand that there are real consequences involved, and I think they understand that they have a voice in creating order in the school. And if they do fall apart into silliness, there is the chair there to create order again. If someone is unruly, the chair can remove them (or they have a vote to remove them, I can’t quite remember how that worked). I was the JC Clerk I think 2 terms, and I never heard anyone suggest a T-shirt like you described. I didn’t have to prevent anything like that, either, because the sentences were almost always, “They cannot talk to each for the rest of the day” or “This person has to do that person’s chore.” I think the former was more effective, however. And the students learn that if they are charged with a law a bunch of times, there are consequences. They could be taken to School Meeting, and they might come up with a harsher sentence, even suspension and the like. I think the students really learn from repetition, precedence being set, and observing when this kind of thing happens to others. And through the experience of having to carry out their sentence, I think they learn to think differently about how they treat people. That’s certainly how it was for me, and what I observed in other students’ behaviour…

        (I should say, I never heard a student suggest a T-shirt or something along those lines…The sentences were always thought through and taken seriously. I think that goes along with the whole culture of the school, and besides, if one person suggested something like that, and if there was a vote, it probably would’ve been struck down. You never know, I suppose it could have happened, but I doubt it. At my school, where Bruce was a staff member, there was a younger student, middle student, older student, and staff member always on JC. That also balanced out the maturity level and brought different perspectives to cases. It wouldn’t have just been high school aged kids all together and just younger students, for example. It seemed to always balance out.)

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