Like Water


The extraordinary approach to education at Fairhaven School

by Mark McCaig

A collection of essays about Fairhaven and the Sudbury model.

Read an Excerpt

The Beating Heart of the School

Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.

– Theodore Roosevelt

Praying mantises abound on campus in November. Big ones. One year students took to feeding them live crickets, staring rapt as the enormous bugs consumed the crickets like people chew corn on the cob. Soon they attempted to stage a fight between two mantises, and word of this reached the animal rights maven of the school. By filling out a grievance form about the incident, she hauled them into the Judicial Committee (JC), claiming, “It upset my right to exist peaceably, it’s cruelty to animals, and it’s just plain wrong.”

Called into JC, the younger boys stared like the hapless crickets before her allegations. Others, however, took up their cause. “I find it ironic that this complaint comes from the head of the Snake Corporation. Don’t you feed the garter snakes live goldfish?” asked one JC member.

“Yes, but the goldfish are bred for food. They were going to die anyway,” she countered.

“Aren’t the mantises going to die anyway?” the JC member pressed on. JC then discovered from witnesses that neither mantis was injured in their brief skirmish. How is it cruelty to animals if no animal got hurt?

The plaintiff testified, “Well, I hear one of the mantises tried to get away and they forced it to come back and fight.” JC confirmed the fact; the organizers had done so. “This hurt the mantis’s feelings. It’s just as cruel.”

A teenager who was watching the proceedings shot his hand up. “It’s a bug! It doesn’t have an autonomic nerve system. It doesn’t have feelings.”

The complainant pulled her legs to her chest and rocked slightly, undeterred. “I know they have feelings, and this brutality hurt their feelings.”

JC debated the case for a few minutes, finally voting by a three-to-two margin to charge the bug fight organizer with cruelty to animals. One member abstained from voting. After obtaining the boy’s plea of “No Contest,” JC voted to sentence him to ten minutes cleaning the grounds. Onlookers to the fight were not charged, despite attempts to charge them with our bedrock “Preamble”1 rule because they did not stop the alleged barbarity. They were informally warned. No one brought a complaint against the Snake Corporation.

Thus the case entered the records, joining other allegations of cruelty to animals like the time students were stomping ants (charged) and the time a student killed a black widow spider (not charged.) In our first year we had a mild mouse problem and I advised a fellow staff member to freeze a captured rodent, on the theory that it would be a painless death. Indignant students brought her into JC, where she said she was just doing her job, keeping the school clean. The students opined that the snap of a mousetrap was faster and thereby less cruel than slow death by freezing. I was brought in as the mastermind. After JC voted not to charge either of us, the complainants wrote legislation prohibiting cruelty to animals, bringing it to School Meeting for swift passage.

Chartered and overseen by School Meeting and convening every day, the Judicial Committee is the most important and the most active committee or corporation at the school. At once practical and fascinating, the JC may be Sudbury Valley’s greatest invention. It is where the rubber meets the road, where the freedom and responsibility intersect, collide, and coexist. In many ways, the JC is the beating heart of the school. As one student said, “Without JC, this place would fall apart.”

Aside from School Meeting, only the JC may interrupt any activity and demand a School Meeting member’s immediate presence. West Side Story rehearsal? Working on next year’s budget with the Bookkeeping Committee? Playing house with your friends, and you’re the dog? We all must drop what we’re doing to come to JC, whether we’re plaintiff, defendant or witness. What is this body, and why has a fiercely independent community succumbed to its will these ten years?

Fairhaven’s very first School Meeting chartered the Judicial Committee, and it has been meeting daily to settle grievances ever since. Every School Meeting member must serve on JC as assigned by the Law Clerk, the person annually elected by School Meeting to oversee the JC. The Law Clerk divides the

School Meeting membership into five age groups and assigns a person from each group to JC. At Fairhaven, a term lasts two weeks. When the school had lower enrollment, students had to serve multiple terms on JC over the course of the year; one term per year is typical these days. Bear in mind that the weekly School Meeting has enacted all of the rules and practices concerning JC. Innovations continue.

Every six weeks, School Meeting also elects JC Clerks and Alternate Clerks. Whereas the Law Clerk maintains the Lawbook and the judicial database, and monitors the smooth functioning of the system, the JC Clerks run the daily meetings. Becoming a successful JC Clerk takes patience, communication skills, persistence, and grit. Meetings average between one and two hours every day, and the clerks are the daily face of order at Fairhaven. Negotiating college or the labor market may seem easy compared to clerking your umpteenth mess-in-the-Chesapeake-Room case with a half-dozen or so students.

The judicial process at Fairhaven is egalitarian to the core. Anybody can allege rule-breaking by completing a write-up form about the incident. Staff members and fellow students assist students who are not proficient writers. Some students delight in writing up staff members. When accused, staff members too must come to the JC and answer questions.

Sometimes students who target staff for trivial write-ups become acquainted with the concept of payback by ending up charged themselves for breaking a rule. One day I was talking to an alumnus on the breezeway, twirling a small stick. A teenager ran by, clapping me extra hard on the back. I flicked the stick at him. He removed his headphones with much indignity, saying, “I’m writing you up!”

The graduate cautioned, “You’re writing him up? You just smacked his back!” The current student wrote me up. When the JC met the next day, they voted to charge us both with the “right to exist peaceably rule.”2 We both received warnings.

Coming to JC for the first time is daunting for both young and old. Picture a table surrounded by the Committee members, with the Clerks facing you. A pile of grievances and the red three-ring binder containing the Lawbook rest on the table. Onlookers usually people the room. For a new, young student the setting can feel intimidating. One girl spent an entire year whispering testimony to her very un-shy friend who relayed it, verbatim, to the JC, happy to accommodate her.

While it may look at first like the Principal’s Office, these new students learn that it does not at all feel like the principal’s office. As at all Sudbury schools, the judicial process is absolute in its commitment to due process. Deliberation is public and open. JC calls witnesses and writes, then adopts by vote a detailed report of what happened.

Though they seldom have, defendants can “plead the Fifth” and elect not to incriminate themselves. They also have the option of pleading not guilty when charged with breaking a rule. In these rare cases, the defendant pleads her case to the next School Meeting. Defendants who do not wish to challenge the finding may plead no contest and accept JC’s sentence. Defendants and other School Meeting members may also appeal to School Meeting if they disagree with a JC decision.

The final piece of each case resulting in a charge is sentencing. Sentences usually call for restrictions, community service, or reparations. The most common JC cases are violations of the following rule: “1-30-10. Everyone is responsible for cleaning up after themselves.” Typical JC sentences for not cleaning up (or in JC parlance “leaving a mess”) are cleaning part of the school or restricting people from the room where the mess occurred. Serial mess-makers incur more aggressive sentences, such as a restriction to eating only at a certain table for the next month.

In JC, if you break it, you buy it. So pleading guilty to a charge of violating rule 1-20-10 in the Lawbook–destruction, alteration, or misuse of school property–means you have to repair or pay for what you destroyed, altered or misused. Break a window? Pay for its replacement. Doodle on a picnic table? Sand it. Misuse the glue gun? You lose the privilege to use it. Whenever possible, JC votes for sentences that are logical and reasonable.

Free people, especially free children, like to run; but other free people, including children, want an orderly, safe school, one that is not disrupted by runners. JC often got creative, in our first decade, when it came to sentencing violators of the rule prohibiting running in the building. While first-time offenders usually received a warning, early JCs experimented with sentencing repeat offenders to walking in slow motion through the building. Once a JC sentenced a runner to crawl. Although the defendant thought it would have been fun, School Meeting overrode the sentence, invoking its legislation prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. JCs have restricted runners from rooms, halls, and weather permitting, entire buildings. Recent JCs have, with some success, restricted runners from using any external doors that open into tempting hallways.

The Judicial Committee has its finger on the pulse of the school. If there has been an outbreak of running, the JC must innovate. If the Committee sees the same individual over and over, it must work with that person, perhaps discuss referring the student to School Meeting. Often JC Clerks will propose a new rule or amend an old one at School Meeting resulting from JC business. For example, to accommodate musicians as well as the need for relative quiet, JC Clerks proposed a two-hour window during which loud music may be played.

Each week the Chairman reads to School Meeting the JC Report, a complete, case-by-case listing of the Committee’s work from the previous week. This affords School Meeting members the chance to review and oversee the Committee. Reviewing the JC Report often reveals at least one or two cases that need further work. Given its case load, the JC needs the weekly support School Meeting provides. In its wisdom, the School Meeting may find that a young girl was not guilty of the no running rule, or that another student’s week-long restriction from the computer room was too severe. Sometimes the review will edit the language of a JC Report.

Attending to the many variables at work in each case– personalities, legal precedent, current events at school, due process–is what makes the Judicial Committee such a profoundly educational system. Maneuvering through each case requires interviewing the principals, synthesizing the facts into a written report, identifying rules that may have been broken, and deciding upon a reasonable consequence. All in a democratic, group setting.

A successful JC buttresses its judicial tasks with compassion and decency. Clerks assess defendants. Are they very young? Are they new to Fairhaven’s freedom and responsibility? Are they veteran students, struggling with a new chapter in their lives? Is there a long-standing interpersonal dispute between principals in a case? These and a hundred other factors affect the proceedings. While JC must charge and sentence, the Clerks and Committee members must also retain their humanity by remaining aware of extenuating circumstances.

JC fosters in our students an ongoing awareness of others and a process for maintaining order in a community they value. Years of participation breed in each student an ethical sensibility, a sense of ownership. Some students and staff at first experience the Judicial Committee as an all or nothing process: winners get their cases dropped, losers get charged. Experience often promotes a more sophisticated understanding that recognizes the interplay between the winner/loser surface and the evolving judicial process beneath the surface.

JC might see the same defendant over and over for not eating at a table. For most cases, the Committee has enough evidence to charge and sentence her. On a few occasions, JC decides otherwise. Perhaps no witnesses other than the complainant saw her. Maybe she actually did not violate the rule. In erring on the side of the defendant’s innocence until proven guilty, has the JC caused the person who wrote the grievance to “lose?”

Maintaining a system of law and order cannot be reduced to winners and losers; it’s an organic process. One day, the repeat offender stops violating the may-only-eat-at-tables rule. Was it because of her punishments? Maybe. Was it because of the number of times she was brought before the Committee by School Meeting members of all stripes for violating the rule? Maybe again. Was it even because of the one or two times there was not enough evidence so she was not charged, even though she broke the rule? Both the student’s development and the effect of JC on that development have timetables all their own.

The deliberate and precious fairness of the judicial system at Fairhaven removes every student’s feelings of fear or intimidation, sometimes with remarkable speed. They buy in. A nervous student soon breezes into the JC room, assumes responsibility for her actions, signs the form, and goes about her business, hopefully this time running to her next activity after she goes outside.

The Judicial Committee concretizes the value the school places on honesty and justice. Sudbury schools stand almost alone as places students are expected to not lie, even by other students, and liars are not admired when they do. One year a new teenager repeatedly denied smoking cigarettes in the woods until eyewitnesses testified that she had. Only then did she admit to smoking. An eight-year-old boy, a Fairhaven veteran who was serving on JC for the multi-day investigation, spoke to JC about the teenager: “Right now I’m thinking that almost anyone is more trustworthy in this school than her.”

School Meeting members have also had long, intense discussions about the gap between the no snitching teen culture and the primacy of honor at Fairhaven. An early teen entered the pantheon of student honor when she convinced fellow students to turn themselves in for smoking on campus, an act of contrition and honesty which saved them from expulsion.

There are only a handful of deal-breakers regarding a student’s continued enrollment at Fairhaven –ongoing or severe dangerous activity (for example anything to do with fire), illegal activity, perhaps intense anti-social behavior (such as a pattern of acts of violence). Such occurrences and patterns have been quite rare.

Inability or unwillingness to participate in JC is another deal-breaker. Persons found to be lying to JC, not doing sentences, or in any other way obstructing the judicial proceedings are found to be in contempt of JC, a serious offense that usually earns a referral to School Meeting for sentencing. Serial charges of contempt of JC (acting inappropriately during JC) also leads to referrals to School Meeting, suspensions, and discussions of viability at Fairhaven. People must be willing, honest participants in the JC process at school, or they cannot come. It is that central.

Participating in JC teaches people the basic premise of civil society: there are agreed upon rules that must be followed, and not following them has consequences for the individual and the society. Yet JC is seldom cut and dried. Each case has its nuances.

Was anybody else part of this mess? Has the defendant left other messes?

“I was running in the building, but he was chasing me.”

Is the Clerk having a bad day? Has the JC been cracking down on running in the building lately? Was the defendant angry when he hit him?

“Yes I called her that, but it was a joke.”

“Well, I didn’t think it was funny. It insulted me.” Was it a sexist remark?

And a JC that’s cruising along, handing out parking tickets if you will, will suddenly brake for a significant conversation. We discuss the line between humor and sexism, the rights and limits of free speech, the nature of liberty itself. The Judicial Committee is simultaneously practical and deep, maintaining the school’s order and debating philosophical issues. Schools and publishers that spend untold millions attempting to develop critical thinking in young people need only establish JCs. It’s almost impossible to come into JC and not think. Issues and discussions tend to linger in the mind long after a case is closed. A case in point – those poor praying mantises and their hurt feelings.

Copyright 2008 by Fairhaven School