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The Three Rs

The Three Rs: Rules, Respect, Responsibility

School: Fairhaven School

Why We Are Not a “School with No Rules”

An article in a local Massachusetts paper recently described Sudbury Valley School as a “School with No Rules.” The reporter obviously hadn’t seen the 30-page rule book which Sudbury Valley’s School Meeting has created (over 30 years) and to which all students and staff are beholden. Why our schools need so many rules? It’s the same question that was posed about democracy when it first emerged. In the absence of an overarching authority figure — king, parent, teacher — rules are the backbone of a just and orderly society. Painstaking attention to the process of rulemaking and enforcing is a necessary component of any democracy.

In most people’s minds there are two general methods of raising kids — the authoritarian and the permissive. In one the adult makes all the rules and enforces them, in the other there are no rules, or the rules are always subject to negotiation and manipulation. One is firm and disciplined, the other is kind and warm. One breaks the will and invites rebellion, the other disregards accountability and invites self-indulgence.

The power of the Sudbury model’s democracy is that it provides an alternative to both approaches to being with children. Kids at Sudbury model schools are treated with respect and are not subject to arbitrary authority. On the other hand, they are fully accountable for their actions and experience real consequences if they violate the rules set by the community. Freedom of education is balanced very clearly against the expectation — the requirement — that everyone treat others with respect and carry out agreements responsibly.

There are costs to this approach. Some people are disgusted with the number of rules a Sudbury school creates and with the huge amount of time and energy devoted to enforcing those rules. Sometimes students meet for hours in the Judicial Committee, calling witnesses and reviewing past offenses, discussing issues of fairness and respect for the community. Such seemingly minor events as a smashed pumpkin or a mess left in the library for the third time can call for serious consequences if they violate the responsibility each member of the community has to the others.

For little ones and other new students, a Judicial Committee meeting itself can seem like a punishment. Facing a group of bigger kids and staff can be quite intimidating. But the message a five-year-old gets from going through the same “grown-up” process the rest of us do, is that they are full participants in the community, fully involved, fully respected, and fully accountable. As members of the Committee, when their time comes up to serve on it, they experience the process from the other side — realizing just how hard it is to strive for open-minded fairness, how complex justice really is.

Sometimes consequences seem harsh. A five year old is suspended for two days for disregarding an important Judicial Committee restriction; a staff member has to stay out of the kitchen for two days for leaving a mess from a baking project; a seven year old is required to stand guard by the door during school meeting for two hours for running through the meeting room the week before; a sixteen year old is expelled immediately, without a second chance, for violating a state law during school.

What distinguishes these “punishments” from those in traditional schools or in most families, is that they come from one’s peers, one’s own community, a community striving to maintain an atmosphere of respect and freedom. In a thriving Sudbury school, Judicial Committee consequences seldom interfere with friendships, there is no such thing as snitching, and untruthfulness in a JC is almost unheard of. Kids understand that in a school which allows complete independence, and genuinely trusts kids to make decisions about their own learning and life, real freedom must be protected from disrespect and chaos.

Some people bring up Lord of the Flies when they hear that students will “run the school” at Fairhaven. They worry that there is a latent fascist impulse that will make kids inflict cruel and unusual punishments on one another. But one must remember that the children in Lord of the Flies had just come from an authoritarian British boarding school. Hierarchy and brute force were what they knew and what they put into practice. If those kids had come from a Sudbury-model school, a democratic process would certainly have been recreated on their desert island. Kids at Sudbury schools care deeply about their school culture and the process by which decisions are made. They take great care to treat others with fairness and compassion, since they might well be sitting before the Judicial Committee themselves next time.

So many of the “free schools” that started in the sixties and seventies were unwilling to establish clear lines of decision-making and rules of conduct. The belief that natural curiosity was the necessary force behind real learning was tied up with a rejection of “power trips” and any sort of formality. Many of these schools simply ended in chaos and bitterness, or simple entropy, because they were unable to allow for educational freedom and respect for the individual while preventing paralysis by indecision and a behavioral free-for-all on the other. Sudbury Valley’s success and longevity was and is still unquestionably due to the fact that the school understands that freedom requires order and that respect necessitates due process under conditions of rigorous fairness (as well as caring and compassion).

By making sure we treat one another respectfully and uphold our responsibilities, we are practicing what we preach about how people learn. We learn about life by living it; We learn about respect by being respected; We learn about responsibility by being granted it, feeling its weight and carrying it to conclusion ourselves. It doesn’t mean that, being human and relatively inexperienced, we don’t make mistakes. But mistakes are just opportunities to refine one’s approach and try again. By trusting students with their own choices and with the democratic governance of the school community, we tell them that they are worthy of respect, that they are capable and responsible, and that we expect nothing less from them as individuals and as a school.

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