Image by Anne KroiƟ from Pixabay

Electric Fences, Chalk Lines, and the Spirit of Self Defense
This post describes a significant change we have recently made to our judicial system at Hudson Valley Sudbury School.

Ken Danford published an excellent piece in Tipping Points describing how conflict is managed at Northstar, and suggested that a conversation follow to compare notes on how different SDE approaches create and maintain boundaries. This is an opportune moment for us at Hudson Valley Sudbury School to share as well, because we’ve recently made a significant change to our Judicial Committee (JC) process, making it distinctive from other Sudbury schools, as far as I know. Please note this is only relevant to HVSS and not to other Sudbury Schools.

I love the Sudbury judicial system1 and the freedom and equality which the rule of law establishes. At Sudbury schools, the “laws” are best understood as agreements about boundaries. For the most part these boundaries are very clear, and they can’t be altered on the fly or by the whim of any School Meeting Member, so we all know what’s (legally) permissible and what isn’t. The JC, in its strict focus on determining whether a boundary has been crossed, avoids the pitfalls of moralizing, judging right and wrong, and the power differential between two negotiating parties. In its refusal to take responsibility for changing the behavior of individuals or to solve problems for them, it respects autonomy and personal choice; everyone is free to break school laws and to experience the consequences. The message is simple: we have boundaries, but your life is your own.

If the laws are boundaries and the JC maintains them, then it also erects an electric fence along those boundaries2 by issuing “sentences.” When someone pushes up against an electric fence, it hurts, but it isn’t the fence’s fault, because the fence was in plain sight, and it never asked to be touched. Nevertheless, I have sometimes found it difficult to reconcile the basic principle which guides our school – trust – with the practice of sentencing. Why does the fence need to be electrified? Doesn’t that imply a lack of trust? Could it even be a covert attempt to teach a lesson to an otherwise unwilling pupil, a practice anathema to our philosophy? Does “electrification” not go beyond a countermeasure to protect the safety and well-being of our selves, our property, and our campus – beyond the spirit of, “self defense?” If it does, why would we go beyond it? And what gives us the right, anyway? Even the consent of the governed may not be sufficient to claim that authority.

In recent weeks we have had several robust discussions about JC at HVSS; we’ve dug into our motivations, clarified what we think JC should be and what it should do, and struggled to align it more closely with our principles. The result has been a decision to nullify and replace the “sentencing” phase of the process. Instead, we decided that the JC should ask the individual who crossed a boundary what they will do in response. Complainants are also invited into this conversation. The JC no longer has the authority to issue sentences; the electric fence has been replaced by a chalk line. The JC is maintaining its practices of performing thoroughgoing investigations into complaints, honoring due process, and making clear indications when boundaries are crossed, and School Meeting reserves the right, in cases where boundaries are crossed repeatedly or egregiously, to suspend and expel students (just as both parties in any relationship should always reserve the right to take a break from or ultimately to end the relationship), but otherwise it is the responsibility of each individual to decide what to do when they have crossed a boundary.

In enrollment interviews, parents of young children sometimes ask about safety in our outdoor areas, because adults are not necessarily present in them to “supervise.” I tell them that our students are safe because they are not supervised. What I mean is that we trust them to take responsibility for their own safety, and they really appreciate that, and they rise to the occasion. Sometimes they get a little roughed up, taking reasonable risks in the playground or the playing field, but that’s part and parcel of having fun outdoors. I predict that our negation of “sentencing” will have a similar effect; that trusting students to respond appropriately will leave them free to actually do so – and to do so with pride and dignity, with their autonomy intact.

We’ve been operating this way for several weeks now3. So far, many people have wanted help formulating a response after crossing a boundary, and the JC is happy to help; further assistance is available (upon request) from members of a new Restoration Committee, which is also available to help mediate interpersonal disputes (again, only upon request and with consent of all relevant parties). Many of us have found the new experience invigorating, refreshing, and affirming; our JC has been renewed, and it is generating positive energy in the community.

I am grateful to be a part of a school based on trust. I know I am at my best when I am ensconced in trusting relationships, supported to direct my own life, move beyond comfort, recover from my failures, and let life’s changes wash over me. I am grateful to be able to have honest and inclusive discussions at school and to earnestly seek the truth together. And I am grateful we are taking this step, once more putting our money where our mouth is, and betting on each other.

[1] If you are unfamiliar with the JC system, Sudbury Valley has an excellent primer available on youtube; you may find it here.
[2] I picked up the images of “electric fences” and “chalk lines” from my colleague JD Stillwater at the Circle School.
[3] This piece was originally written on April 10, 2019.

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