Uyboco: Visiting Sudbury Valley School (Part 2)

Freethinking Me

ONE of the highlights of our visit was sitting in a couple of Judicial Committee (JC) meetings.

Now, one might think that a school like SVS would have little to no rules. After all, students can do anything they want, right? Wrong.

SVS has a rulebook with neatly numbered rules divided into topical subsections. There are rules protecting general welfare, rules governing use of the school’s facilities, rules concerning school management and even rules on the judicial system which detail what the JC can or cannot do.

Some examples of the rules are:

* It is not permitted at school to shout, or display in a public place, obscenities, images, or language generally regarded by the outside community as inappropriate for a school environment.

* Chewing gum cannot be sold at school.

* No one may apply a personal scent product inside a school building.

While these may look like rules in any other school, the difference is that anyone may propose to amend, discard or add another rule, subject to discussion and votation. So these are not just rules handed down from on high but they are made in agreement. There is a sense of ownership and responsibility, and even pride, in keeping them.

The JC is a special committee that meets daily to discuss various cases of rule violations. It is composed of 5 students, a Judicial Clerk (serving as chairman of the meeting) and an adult staff. Everyone gets one vote. The staff has no special authority or function in the committee.

The JC studies each case and attempts to reconstruct the situation. They call in the accused and/or witnesses if necessary for them to write an accurate narrative. Then they discuss, debate, and decide which rule had been broken. They then asked the accused if he or she pleaded guilty or not guilty. If guilty (which happened most of the time), the JC would then decide on the sentence or punishment.

Punishments would usually be in the form of a fine or restriction of certain rooms or facilities for a fixed time period. For example, if someone was guilty of being excessively noisy in a room where that wasn’t allowed, that person would be banned from that room for a week.

We watched in fascination how a bunch of teens and pre-teens took their jobs seriously, laboring over the wordings of the report to make sure it was a fair and accurate representation, and at one point, the JC Clerk even inhibited himself from the case because he was a witness and would therefore be biased.

The entire process was also open to anybody who wanted to come in and observe how the “justice system” works. People would walk in and out of the meetings, sometimes listening for a bit, then going out again. There was a boy whom we thought was just lounging around as he had his headphones on and was looking at his phone the entire time. We were surprised after the meeting when he took off his headphones and started talking, quite articulately, about the case, and how he had never seen that happen before.

The JC provided hands-on experience of what a democratic judicial system is all about, and is a hundred times more effective than any classroom lecture can be.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


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