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?
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.