One Person, One Vote
How the School is Governed
"The thing that I really like about it was that all the rules were spelled out... so when I came to Sudbury Valley, the first thing I did was read... the Law Book and all the school's rules."
We thought you might be curious about how the school is run. Here is a thumbnail sketch of how we operate.
The school as a legal entity is a Massachusetts Corporation, The Sudbury Valley School, Inc. Because it is a non-profit corporation, there are no shareholders. Instead, the Corporation consists of the School Meeting which is made up of students and staff. The school is governed by the School Meeting, which manages the school’s affairs. It meets every Thursday at 1:00 PM. The meetings are run formally according to strict rules of order. The agenda is always published in advance and is called the School Meeting Record.
The School Meeting has full authority to run the school and it does it all: it makes policy, prepares the budget, appropriates funds, hires the staff, passes all the school rules (the permanent rules are codified in the School Meeting Lawbook), oversees discipline, and sets up administrative entities to keep things running smoothly. It is presided over by the School Meeting Chairman who is also the President of the school Corporation. The School Meeting also elects a Secretary to keep records.
To keep all the myriad activities of the school running smoothly, the School Meeting creates Clerks, Committees, and School Corporations.
Clerks are basically administrative officers. For example, there is an Attendance Clerk who supervises attendance records, after-hours use of the building, etc.; there is an Office Clerk who takes care of the office; and so on. When the School Meeting creates a Clerkship, it spells out the officer's exact powers and duties and confers its authority on the Clerk within the domain it has defined.
Committees take care of broader tasks. For example, the Physical Plant Committee takes care of all matters relating to the school's maintenance, to its appearance, and its furnishings.
School Corporations are formal interest groups. They are Sudbury Valley's equivalent of Departments at other schools. They are formed and disbanded according to the needs and interests of the students. For example, there is a Cooking Corporation which takes care of all kitchen activities; a Sports Corporation; and so forth. Corporations are chartered for a specific set of purposes by the School Meeting and given certain powers. Funds are channeled through the Corporations to support various educational activities.
The school's disciplinary problems are taken care of by a Judicial System established by the School Meeting. The details of the system are spelled out in the Lawbook.Return to table of contents
By Daniel Greenberg
With Liberty and Justice for All
Getting a fair shake is hard in any society. In schools, it is often impossible.
I'll never forget the time I was eleven, sitting through an algebra class, bored and fighting sleep. I stretched my arms over my head to wake up. Unfortunately, outside my consciousness, the teacher -- a gruff martinet -- had been ranting angrily at the class and had just shouted, "Which one of you guys is a wise-guy?" My upstretched arms seemed to make me a volunteer. Three days' detention followed.
Most of us have had similar experiences. For twelve years of school, I was terrified of the arbitrary authority of the teachers and administrators, from which there was rarely appeal. All of us at school were determined Sudbury Valley would be different.
When the school first opened, nobody knew how to go about setting up a system that would maintain order fairly. The only school we knew of that seemed to make a successful stab at this problem was A.S. Neill's Summerhill, where they worked out conflicts at their community meetings.
So we tried taking care of things at the School Meeting. The second item on the agenda, after announcements, was the "gripe session," where problems were to be handled.
Predictably, as the weeks wore on, the gripe sessions became longer and longer. Soon, they overshadowed all the other business. We found ourselves holding three and four hour meetings, then two or more meetings a week. Most of the time was devoted to hearing an endless array of complaints about what this student did, or those kids may have done, or that person said he would do.
Worse than the time we lost was our sense of frustration. We tried to be fair, but were we succeeding? Gripe sessions consisted of charges and countercharges, often highly emotional, always picturesque. We rarely had the feeling we were getting to the bottom of things, unless we spent an inordinate amount of time at it. The climax came when the school underwent its baptism by fire in the fall of its opening year. It took a gripe session lasting three solid days to sort things out!
Something had to be done. For some time, we had been looking around for a clue to how to proceed. There was no satisfactory model.
It finally dawned on us that our problem was just the same as any community's problem. And the community had spent thousands of years and immeasurable brain power to devise a solution. Over the centuries, systems of jurisprudence had been developed in different cultures to assure fairness in handling gripes.
We looked hard at our national tradition and studied its essential features. Before long, we assembled the elements of the school's judicial system.
In a nutshell, these elements are simple: there has to be a thorough and impartial investigation of all charges, each of which is specific as to what rule was allegedly broken; there has to be a fair trial before a jury of peers, with full safeguards for the rights of the defendant and with respect for the rules of evidence; and there has to be a fair system of sentencing. Through it all, the personal rights enjoyed by every adult citizen of our nation have to be safeguarded in the school, even though the Supreme Court has held that the United States Constitution does not extend these rights to minors.
The judicial system was set up in the early winter of our first year. It is entirely under the supervision of the School Meeting. There have been changes and adjustments over the years, but the fundamental outlines have remained constant.
The system of justice at Sudbury Valley is our pride and joy. It runs smoothly, handling well over a hundred complaints a year, sometimes ten or twenty a week, without a hitch, year in, year out. Rarely has its fairness been criticized by any member of the school community.
The heart of the system is the group that does the investigating. This is called the Judicial Committee, or "JC" for short. On it serve kids of all ages, a cross-section of the school, drawn by lot, and joined at each meeting by a randomly chosen staff member. It is chaired by a Judicial Clerk elected by the School Meeting four times a year.
The JC meets several times a week. It starts its work with a complaint someone has written, alleging some rule was broken.
Using every avenue open to it, the JC investigates the complaint. It calls witnesses, sifts the conflicting testimony, until it comes up with its best version of what happened.
Since everyone is part of the process, justice at Sudbury Valley belongs to everyone. This has practical consequences that can be seen every day. People rarely lie deliberately to the JC, even though they may give widely differing versions of what happened. For the most part, everyone cooperates.
Most interesting is the way the kids have learned to differentiate society's needs from personal matters. Everyone knows that the school's functioning as an institution depends on a general acquiescence to the rules passed by the School Meeting. That's the business side of it. That means, for each individual, that they all have to help enforce the laws, to judge fairly and testify truthfully, even if the matter involves a friend. When the official judicial process is over, the personal side takes over. Friendships resume as before, with no interruption.
Over and over again, I have seen close friends clash bitterly in a JC matter, only to emerge from the session and play or work together as if nothing had happened. For new students, especially those transfering from other schools, this is the hardest part of Sudbury Valley to take. They have gotten used to an "us versus them" mentality at school, where anyone who testifies against a fellow student is a "rat." Sometimes, it takes a while for new kids to adjust, but in the end, virtually all of them do. It couldn't be otherwise.
The act of writing a complaint for the JC is called, in school vernacular, "bringing someone up." None of us remembers how this phrase was born, although there are lots of theories. Some think it dates to the days when the JC always met on the second floor, and people were brought upstairs to appear before it.
Not long ago, one five year old said to another, who was new at school, "If you don't stop doing that, I'll bring you up." "Then I'll come right down," came the ready answer.
The illiterate ones at school have to collar a scribe to write their complaints from dictation, a practice far from extinct in the world at large. Usually, older students help, but the staff is always available for this service.
Occasionally, someone tries to misuse the judicial apparatus for personal ends. They do this by filing a stream of complaints against someone -- harrassment, it's called. It doesn't take long for the JC to realize what is going on. There can only be two reasons for a student to be "brought up" repeatedly: either the student is being a pile of trouble, or the student is being harrassed. The JC deals firmly with students who harrass their fellows.
At times, kids will file a complaint in the heat of passion when there has been some sort of an argument or high-tension game. By the time the investigation is begun, everyone has cooled down. The matter is then easily mediated by the JC, or even dismissed. Often, the cooling-off takes place before the complaint has been completed, as it's being written. I recorded one such session recently, one that was not at all atypical:
The fact is, everyone gets a fair shake at Sudbury Valley. Everyone rests confident in the knowledge that freedom here is protected by a system of justice that is blind to age, sex, or status.Return to table of contents
A Few Words on SVS
The Sudbury Valley School has been in operation for 38 years now, and over
thirty other schools around and outside our country (the United States) see
our school's success and are modeling their schools on ours.
The physical plant is a beautiful
Victorian mansion on a ten-acre campus. It is furnished like a home, with
couches, easy chairs, books everywhere (rather than hidden in a library),
etc. The grounds are excellent for sport and games, and the school has
several facilities; music rooms, an art room, a high speed Internet
connection, a darkroom, a piano, a stereo, a pond great for fishing, several
The school is governed democratically,
by the School Meeting. The School Meeting meets weekly, and is made up of
students and staff (one vote to a person, following Robert's Rules of
Order). It decides all matters of consequence; electing administrative
officers from among its own members (yes, no distinction is made between
students and staff as far as eligibility for an office), deciding school
rules (enforced by the Judicial committee, see later), making expenditures,
submitting the annual budget to the Assembly (see later) for approval,
hiring, firing and re-hiring staff (there is no tenure, all staff are up for
re-election each year), etc.
Within the school, the rules are
enforced by a judicial system which has been re-defined by the School
Meeting several times over the last 38 years. Its most current incarnation
revolves around a Judicial Committee (JC) made up of two officers elected
every two months (always students, ever since the positions first opened),
five students selected randomly every month, and a staff member chosen
daily. The JC investigates complaints of school rules being broken, and
sometimes presses charges. If the JC presses charges against someone, and
(s)he pleads innocent, there will be a trial. If a person pleads guilty or
is found guilty by the trial, that person will be sentenced by the Judicial
Committee. Verdicts and sentences deemed unfair by the accused (or deemed
unfair by other people, for that matter) may be brought before the School
Democracy alone is not enough to create a stable happy community. The revolution-torn democratic city-states of ancient Greece are testimony to this. It is also important that personal freedoms and rights be respected. As such, the school grants the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to its students; normally in American society students are not given freedom of thought or religion (a parent may force his/her child into Sunday school), free assembly (they're not even allowed to leave their seats to go to the bathroom in traditional school, without permission from a teacher), etc.
It is understood that the
"purpose" of schools is to educate. So let me put forward a few of
the most basic reasons why parents, staff and students in Sudbury Model
Schools believe that a place with freedom, democracy, equality before the
law, and a sense of personal rights is the best environment for children to
People naturally learn to deal with
the environment in which they are placed. In a place with grades, where
knowledge is spoon-fed to them and they never have any reason to make use of
it apart from passing a test, students will learn to get good grades
(whether that means learning to cheat, or learning how to "cram"
for a test). In a place where people do what they want, they find the
intrinsic value of knowledge. In a place where people are treated as
adult human beings they learn that they must live up to certain community
standards, but when they are treated as prisoners (read: traditional
schools) they learn only that they are untrusted, and they learn to wait for
the instructions and orders of others. It is testimony to the strength of
the human spirit that there are so few apathetic and helpless people
that come out of the public school system.
Two Realities of Empowerment
During a School Meeting debate in the late spring of the year 2000, someone made an oft-repeated point: “If the people involved in this activity really cared, they would be here and promote their cause.” It is a refrain that I have heard often from the day the first School Meeting was held in the barn, in the summer of 1968. It is an argument I myself have used often. After all, the school is as pure a participatory democracy as can be imagined. Literally everyone, from four-year-olds to the oldest staff member, has an equal say and an equal vote in the school’s governing body, the School Meeting. This universal empowerment, built into the core structure of the school, is inviolate. All people have to do in order to actualize their guaranteed equality is to make an appearance, make their views known, and become an active part of the democratic political process of the school. It all sounds so simple, so reasonable, and so valid.
Yet, there has always been a significant, if small, group of students, mostly teen-agers, who have complained bitterly about the pointlessness and emptiness of the school’s alleged democracy. They talk of “the people who run the school” – someone other than themselves or their friends, an inside power group that somehow rigs the vote in its favor every time, and against whom it is pointless to argue. Over and over again, I have engaged these dissidents in conversation, sometimes heated, telling them that they are creating a fantasy, and that they are weaving excuses to explain their own lazy indifference. They remained unmoved, unconvinced, and I have remained puzzled by my inability to get through to them with such an obviously true and simple message.
Anyway, the School Meeting debate I started telling you about continued, and suddenly a sixteen-year-old girl, bright, articulate, and totally at home with the current disgruntled non-attendees, who had first enrolled in the school as a teenager, raised her hand and was recognized by the chair. She then proceeded to explain, with perfect clarity and without a hint of anger, the simple point that I had been missing all these years: Those people who don’t attend School Meetings don’t feel they have an equal voice, even though they actually do. For them, the democracy is not a reality; it is somehow a cover for a manipulating insider group from which they feel excluded. They feel that whatever they say, they are not heard; whatever they argue, they never get a fair shake at convincing the undecided; and whatever they vote, they never manage to collect enough supporters to carry the day. They feel that the power the school says it has bestowed on them is a sham, and they refuse to participate in a process that they think is a fraud.
We all listened carefully, reflecting on the evident truth of what she was saying. Then another older teenager sought the floor, someone who had been enrolled at Sudbury Valley since she was a little four-year-old child. Calmly, as if elucidating for the rest of us one of the essential facts of democratization, she explained what was happening: In order to feel that you have a real voice in the school, you have to pay your dues, you have to go through a long training apprenticeship in the political processes of democracy in general, and of the School Meeting in particular. You have to attend year after year, watching and listening, figuring out how to debate, how to make cogent arguments, how to muster support, how to think quickly in replying to the opposition, how to put together a coherent and logical presentation. You watch the people who are good at it, and learn from them. Then, slowly, you enter the active fray, honing your strengths and remedying your weaknesses. It is a long process, one that takes patience and perseverance, until you finally become good at being a contributing member of the School Meeting. There are no shortcuts. It is a long and arduous learning process, and the reward is the ability to hold your own and contribute to the school’s governance with a high level of competence. You learn to lose, to regroup, to win, to be gracious to others, to accept and fashion compromise. You learn, in short, the art of living in a society of equals.
That School Meeting was a remarkable experience for me. Here, two perceptive and sensitive students had provided the framework for understanding one of the most persistent problems the school has faced over the years. Empowerment has two complementary realities, and both must be present for an effective participatory democracy to embrace all its members. The first reality, the sine qua non, is structural, a democratic constitution that guarantees the institutional integrity of the egalitarian society. But that is not enough. There must also be the psychological reality of empowerment, the understanding of what empowerment entails, and the feeling of truth and validity that follows from this understanding. This understanding is learned, as are all the other complex lessons of life, through nurturing, probing, observing, experiencing, and practicing. A person is only really empowered in his society when both realities exist for him/her.
There is no quick way to get the required understanding. For teenagers who enter the school from other educational environments, where they have been deprived of all the rights to which they are entitled at Sudbury Valley, the sudden transition has an aura of unreality to it. Never having known a school, or indeed any institution with adults in it, which is anything other than a hierarchical dictatorship, they are skeptical and suspicious; and they are impatient to find out, as quickly as possible, what the real nature of their new school is. So they put the school to quick tests: they express, individually or in small groups, some demand. They reason that if they are truly empowered in this Sudbury Valley community which they have joined, then that empowerment should yield a straightforward result – namely, that their demand is met forthwith by the school. If there is hesitation on the part of the school community to accept their demand, they see this as an immediate validation of all their suspicions: “Of course we didn’t get what we wanted. We don’t really have power. ‘They’ have power, and ‘they’ use it to turn down our reasonable demand under the guise of a democratic structure called the School Meeting. Empowerment should mean that we get what we want; isn’t that the meaning of ‘power’?” And so they become quickly disenchanted, and feel that they have uncovered the dishonesty that infuses all aspects of the school.
Indeed, the history of democracy in the world bears out these observations. It is no accident that the only stable democratic societies that embrace a broad population of people who feel truly empowered are those based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition of individual empowerment, which itself was developed with tortuous slowness over a period of centuries. It took an enormous span of time for the English to go through the national apprenticeship that we have been talking about, learning the ins and outs of political democracy based on individual freedom and rights. And the colonial Americans who created our version of a democratic society were the beneficiaries of this long English apprenticeship, and commenced a new process of learning in North America that continues to this day.
It is no surprise that the rapid spread of democracy in the world that began in the late twentieth century has been accompanied by so much chaos, warfare, hatred, and cynicism. Adult societies that suddenly are plunged into a structurally egalitarian polity have not served the apprenticeship required to master the art of living freely together. Every person, every group, as it changes from authoritarianism to freedom, feels that true empowerment must mean that they get their own way, without the same old obstacles being placed in their paths. In such an environment, sudden empowerment turns into an endless struggle for power – for actualizing the empowerment they have been promised – with the result that real liberty and fraternity go down the drain, and the compromises, adjustments, modifications and negotiations never get a chance to be practiced and perfected.
I do not know of any way to hasten the successful transition of a person from a state of virtual enslavement to a state of psychological empowerment in a new structurally democratic environment. Twenty-five years ago, we were somewhat aware of this problem at school, and in a burst of optimism the School Meeting voted to create a Freedman’s Bureau, to help new students make the transition from their old to their new environments. The name was taken from the institution that was set up in the South after the Civil War, to help former slaves make the transition to living as free persons. Unfortunately, Sudbury Valley’s Freedman’s Bureau did not achieve anything at all, mainly because no one at school had the foggiest notion how to carry out its lofty goal in everyday practice. We don’t know much more today than we knew then. Perhaps there is no way to help another person become free. Perhaps the only way available is through a person’s internal determination to free him/herself, by undergoing the long apprenticeship required before one becomes master of his/her own destiny, and feels truly empowered to contribute as a full participant in a society of equals.Return to table of contents
Books by the Sudbury Valley Press ® are available from www.sudval.org, by calling (508) 877-3030, or by sending a fax to (508) 788-0674. You may write to the Sudbury Valley School Press ® at The Sudbury Valley School Press, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA 01701. You can contact the school here
Permission to freely copy and distribute this document is given, provided that the text is not modified or abridged and this notice is included. For more information about SVS titles available electronically, check this web site periodically.
The Sudbury Valley School ® is a democratic school run by a School Meeting. Students and staff each get one vote on all matters of substance; including the school rules and hiring/firing of staff. The school has no grades, tests, or scores.
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