Matters of Justice

This year I thought I’d do something really wholesome for Christmas so I went to the garden store and bought a relatively inexpensive potted pine tree to use as our Christmas tree, thinking I would plant it in the garden after the holiday. It was a type of pine I wasn’t familiar with, but I love pines, I’m a mountain hiker and total botany nerd, and I thought it would look great in the yard.

A couple days after I brought it home, I looked up the type of pine I had bought in a google image search to see how tall it would get and what kind of shape it would grow into, so that I could decide where it would go. To my total surprise, the small triangular pine I had purchased would eventually grow into a canopy-like tree. The italian stone pine is also sometimes called the “umbrella pine,” and really, it’s quite beautiful.

But it’s not at all what I expected.

We are faced in life, many times, with moments where what we get is not what we expected, and each time this happens, we experience some degree of grief and loss and crisis. Even when what we are getting is something clearly good, it can be really difficult to throw away our expectations and our vision of the future. Each time we are asked to do this it is as though someone is asking us to walk along the edge of a cliff, blindfolded, while they hold our hand. And this moment is the most frightening and the most difficult when we are asked to give over this trust with respect to the future of our children. And this is so intensely compounded when we are asked to allow our children to be the ones to lead us along that edge of that cliff.

It is with all this in mind that I wanted to write this article for parents about justice systems in Sudbury model schools. I myself am a single mom of two young children, a graduate and former staff of Sudbury Valley School (the first Sudbury school), and a current staff of the Open School. So much of what I say about this is deeply personal and is informed by decades of both personal and professional experience. I am one of you in many, many ways.

And yet. There are so many ways in which what we are doing is so, so alien. For example, I worked for several years in state administered standardized testing, and much of the rhetoric there is — bizarrely — about empowering students to be able to direct their own work. As if anything could be more obviously further from “empowering students to direct their own work” than what public school teachers despairingly refer to as “teaching to the test.” There’s a lot of talk in many public, private, charter, and alternative schools about letting kids take leadership positions. But let’s be clear: most of the time, this is a puppet show. Adults are supposed to have the real power, and adults are typically comfortable with that. The popular vision of children in power is that of Lord of the Flies.

At Sudbury schools, it ain’t so. Kids have real and practical power, including the power to fire me if I don’t advocate for them accurately as I write this article, so I want to be clear, because I like my job, and I like the kids I work for a whole lot. Sudbury schools are environments where kids can be fully active participants in their academic societies, and effect meaningful social and personal change in the world around them. I think you as parents and guardians are here in part because you want your children to grow up believing that this is a part of who they are. But right now, this part, this is sometimes very hard. Because learned helplessness is a part of being a baby and a toddler, and it’s a part of how our regular society functions as well.

With all that in mind, let’s talk about how Civics Board and School Meeting handle matters of justice.

Civics Board

The Civics Board (CB) is the main body of the school for handling everyday rule infractions. Every member of the school is instructed on how to use the CB to deal with rule breaking and conflicts as the first order of business upon enrollment. It is used by new students with varying levels of trepidation and glee, it is used by veterans casually and neutrally. You can do write-ups against staff. You can do write-ups against yourself. You can do write-ups against yourself as a staff (I did this when I accidentally broke a rule earlier in the school year — I left my lunch in the church fridge over the weekend by accident and the CB restricted me from using the fridge for the next two days I was present at school).

The CB is managed by a student, and is a board consisting of one staff and several students of varying age groups and social circles. The idea is, explicitly, to prevent a situation where any one specific “clique” is overrepresented so that the board will make the most fair rulings possible and avoid personal bias, much like jury selection. CB meets each day at 11AM. They read and investigate the write-ups received since they last met, which in my experience is on average about ten, including some works-in-progress. Each write-up is on a form, which you have probably seen, which asks for the following information from the complainant:

  • Who is writing the complaint

  • Who the complaint is against

  • Where the incident occurred

  • Time and date of the incident

  • Names of any witnesses

  • Rule broken

  • Description of the events that occurred, for context

The CB then calls the complainant, the accused party, and the witnesses, and tries to get the most objective account of what happened. Based on what the CB can affirmatively conclude did occur, they vote on wording for a report, vote on charges to be filed, and vote on a sentence that feels related to the rule infraction. Typically, sentences for minor violations are meant to be annoying reminders to the student, rather than cruel punishments — for example:

  • Someone who has been disrupting others attempts to read quietly indoors by shouting indoors might be sentenced to have to whisper inside (while still being allowed to speak at any volume outdoors, which accounts for the majority of our campus)

  • Someone who has left a lot of messes in common areas might be asked to do cleaning projects that contribute to the positive environment of the community

  • Someone who has neglected their responsibilities or broken their sentences due to their computer usage might be briefly restricted from using electronic devices

There are some restrictions placed on the severity of the sentences which the Civics Board can impose, however. For a sentence that has a greater impact on the school as a whole, such as the suspension of a student or a sentence that restricts a student from something for more than five days, the CB must ask the School Meeting.

School Meeting

“School Meeting” is one of those lexically ambiguous terms that means two things and it’s often not clear which meaning is being referred to. There is the very literal sense in which it refers to the meeting that occurs at 1PM every Thursday, which is a meeting that is held in accordance with a modified version of Robert’s Rules of Order, and of which I am the current Chairperson. But “School Meeting” also refers to a membership set that includes all of the students and all of the staff. So, when you picture this meeting that occurs at 1PM every Thursday, picture a meeting that all of the students and all of the staff are equally empowered to participate in. Practically speaking, what happens is that the staff tend to participate more, because let’s face it, it can be boring to attend chaired meetings, and we are getting paid to do so. But many students do participate, especially if there is a cause on the floor about which they have an interest — for example, if a friend has been referred by CB, or if they’re trying to start a small business within the school, or if they’re trying to arrange an event, or if they’re trying to overturn a staff sponsored rule about not having sugary snacks on campus and no playing allowed in the parking lot (sometimes we sponsor such things just to keep them on their toes — it works).

The School Meeting has several portions, but the portion that I will discuss — because it concerns justice — is the second portion, which is Civics Board Business. This is where Civics Board Referrals are discussed. Referrals can theoretically happen for four reasons: one, the CB feels that a suspension is in order. Two, the CB feels that a sentence of more than five days is in order (this is a new limit, so we have not had this happen yet). Three, the CB is unsure how to proceed with a case (this has never happened). Four, the CB believes an expulsion is in order (this has also never happened).

So, we are talking about suspensions. Within the context of suspensions, there are two types: a “definite” suspension, which is a suspension of a defined number of days, i.e. a one day suspension or a three day suspension; and an “indefinite” suspension, which is a suspension where the length of time is not defined by the Open School but rather by the suspended student’s capacity to return to the Open School on good terms. Let me explain that second one because it’s actually a pretty big deal in all Sudbury schools.

See, Sudbury schools are trust based communities. We function on the foundational principle that you can trust kids, which is a really radical notion. Kids aren’t used to this concept, and neither are parents. Something I have noticed over many years of observation is that for a lot of people, both kids and parents, receiving this kind of trust constitutes the temporary withdrawal of some kind of invisible external scaffolding in the form of “here is what it’s okay for you to do” that the individual must then regrow internally in the form of self-trust, and that can be a very big struggle. It is as this process occurs in students that you see indefinite suspensions, because the student is experimenting with who they fundamentally are and what they feel okay with. The indefinite suspension process is, in my view, an incredibly important way for them to meditate on how they are experimenting with the conflicts between this process and the community within which they are enmeshed, and reconcile that conflict with their community through active interpersonal work. And it’s really important to understand it as something that is scary, and big, and not a punishment, and growth-directed.

Here is what the process typically looks like. Let’s take a hypothetical student, who I will call Claire. Claire has either had one very major incident (safety hazard, violence, illegal activity), or she has had a very intense string of incidents (10 write-ups per day, can’t follow her sentences at all, won’t come to CB to testify, lying to CB). She’s referred at the SM passes an indefinite suspension on Thursday. The SM also passes a committee to help her family to talk about what’s going on with her at school, which is one kid and one staff. The school chooses a kid and a staff who know her well, understand her, and have a good relationship with her. The school additionally has a parent liaison who may field extra questions about all of this — but none of these people are empowered to modify any decisions that were approved by the School Meeting, (which, again, is a body that comprises the entire school including these people and the person who is suspended). The School Meeting understands that a major reason for Claire to attend school is so that her parents can work, but the School Meeting also absolutely cannot function with a student on campus who is ostensibly participating in a trust based community and yet who the School Meeting has agreed by majority vote has broken that trust in a significant way. The student must actively earn back that trust in an equally significant way.

Now, this is done all the time in small ways that you may or may not hear about, and this is what CB sentences are all about. Someone might leave a huge mess of chocolate cake mix all over the tables in the courtyard and have to clean it up, or borrow someone’s dollar store toy and break it and have to pay them a dollar restitution. A one day suspension might happen if someone is being sort of belligerent or non-compliant at civics board, and at Sudbury Valley they used to be automatic for a few things like going on the pavement of the drive while a car was on it or igniting a lighter on campus. But an indefinite suspension is for that moment when a student uses their behavior to send a message to the community that says, “this school can’t handle me,” for example by being violent in a frightening way towards other kids, or by being totally non-compliant with sentences in a persistent way that transcends forgetfulness, or by doing things that are really unsafe, or by using illegal drugs on campus. These are really unacceptable behaviors in a trust based community.

But we also deeply love our community and we all understand that life is a work in progress full of errors and crisis and invisible internal difficulties. An indefinite suspension is not a banishment or an excommunication. It is a way to say, what you did was completely not okay. You need to explain that you are never, ever going to do it again. You need to tell us that we can trust you again, because this is something that we really want to do. We miss you and we like you.

What I know that parents see, when their kids are indefinitely suspended, is how their kids feel when they lose the trust of the school. Claire calls home and usually she says something like “mom, I’m kicked out of school and everyone hates me.” She totally feels that way, and you hear that part and your heart will break and you will go into fight or flight and you will want to save your kid from feeling that heartbreak. Because kids are sort of sneaky sometimes with how they share their feelings with their parents, let me tell you about the part Claire doesn’t tell you about, which I have seen dozens of times on the faces of dozens of kids in the last 20 years. Instead of running away from the problem Claire created for herself, Claire faces it, and effects real change within herself, and addresses herself to her whole community with that change in a totally raw and emotionally open way. Often, she cries in front of a lot of people, and it’s really hard. It might be the hardest thing she’s done so far in life. Sometimes, she comes back more than once. And when she finally does it, she watches her community tell her she is ready and that they trust her again and that they are so happy she is here and that she is with us. Almost always, at this moment, I see tears of joy in her eyes.

Indefinite suspensions are really difficult for everyone involved. The student is initially unsure how to rebuild trust and get back into to school. The parent or parents don’t know how many days they have to find alternate childcare. And the school meeting members often have no idea how they will vote until they hear out what the suspended student has to say. But as I noticed with my tree, growth can be unpredictable. It is often the kids who are pushing the hardest at the edges of their world who are ready to become a part of the world. When we let this process happen, and let the kids own it, it is not just the responsibility that becomes their own. It is also the forgiveness, the success, and the community itself.

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