…And Justice for All

While we never force students to sit down for classes, that does not mean you can do whatever you want. In this blog entry, I will explain what happens if you break a rule, how we create a culture of mutual respect and how we protect our community against disruptive behavior.

A student is happy after a staged wedding. What if he leaves the can on the floor and not in the trash?

There are currently 247 rules in our lawbook, and they all came into existence through School Meeting. Students and staff can suggest new rules or propose changes to existing rules in School Meeting, which meets every week, attendance is voluntary. We discuss the proposal, and in the following week we vote. Students and staff have equal votes, a rule passes with simple majority. There are multiple lawbooks available to students and staff in the school.

All students and staff members have to follow the rules in the lawbook. If somebody breaks a rule anybody in the school can write a complaint against that person but nobody has to. If somebody can’t write, they can ask another student or staff to help.

An example: Judicial Committee in action

The names and details in this example are fictional, but similar situations happen a lot: Joana (5) and Jeremy (6) play with wooden blocks on the floor in the Big Room. Suddenly, they decide to go outside and play in the grass yard. Several teenagers are in the room and are chatting about the band Twenty One Pilots. I come into the room and see the wooden blocks all over the floor. I ask the teenagers who played with the wooden blocks, Tim and Tina say it was Joana and Jeremy. I know that there is a rule against leaving out a mess, it reads:

C2. MESS Before going on to something else, clean up your previous activity. Littering or leaving messes is not allowed anywhere in the school (amended 11/22/2005). Anyone using material belonging to someone else’s mess must share in the responsibility for cleaning that mess (amended 10/15/2008). If you use an area, you must clean it fully when you are done, even if there was a mess when you started (amended 05/27/2015).

I think for a moment. I could…

  1. do nothing
  2. clean it up myself
  3. come back later to see if Joana and Jeremy cleaned up their mess
  4. find Joana and Jeremy and remind them of the mess rule
  5. write a complaint to Judicial Committee

An example incident report

I decide on option number four, but half an hour later the blocks are still there, so I decide to write a complaint to the Judicial Committee (JC), see picture. I put the complaint in the JC complaint box.

The Judicial Committee meets meets every day at 11 am (on Fridays at 1 pm) and consists of six students from different age groups and one staff. The meetings are run by the two JC Clerks who get elected four times a year. As with all clerkships in the school, students and staff can run for the office, but JC Clerk and School Meeting Chair have been held by students for many years now. The other committee members are appointed by the JC Clerks for each week, which means that every student (even the 5-year olds) will have to serve on JC about two or three weeks per school year.

For every complaint, JC goes through three phases: investigation, charging, sentencing. The JC tries to deal with all complaints that have accumulated, which usually takes around an hour, but I have also seen JC take almost three hours for multiple difficult cases. For the whole meeting, people raise hands if they want to speak, and the JC Clerks decide who speaks. JC Clerks can speak at any time. This is what could happen in JC (If you want to skip this part, the blog post continues in black font below.):


  • The JC committee: JC Clerks Carl (15) and Cassy (17), staff member Stefani (43), and students Naomi (9), Betty (8), Dave (5), and Brandon (11). The complainant: Alex (31). The witnesses: Tim (15) and Tina (16). The defendants: Joana (5) and Jeremy (6)


  • [Cassy and Carl call the rest of the committee into the room. Everybody sits around a big table. Cassy opens the complaint box, numbers the complaints and determines the order in which they will be dealt with.]
  • CASSY: I call JC to order. This is the first complaint [reads the complaint]
  • CARL: Naomi, can you please get Alex?
  • [Naomi gets Alex, both enter the room. Cassy writes today’s date and the names of the committee members on the complaint form]
  • CASSY: Alex, you wrote up Joana and Jeremy for leaving out a mess yesterday. Do you have anything to add?
  • ALEX: No.
  • CARL: Does the committee have any questions for Alex? … Seing none, you can go Alex. Brandon, can you get Joana and Jeremy?
  • [Alex leaves, Brandon leaves, enters with Joana and Jeremy]
  • CASSY: Joana and Jeremy, Alex wrote you up for leaving out a mess yesterday. Did you leave out the wooden blocks in the Big Room yesterday?
  • JOANA: Yes.
  • JEREMY: Uhhm, I don’t remember.
  • [Cassy writes Joana’s and Jeremy’s testimony on the complaint form]
  • CASSY: Any other questions for Joana and Jeremy? … I see none. Joana and Jeremy please stay here. Brandon, could you get Tim and Tina?
  • [Brandon leaves, enters with Tim and Tina]
  • CARL: Tim and Tina, did you see Joana and Jeremy leave out the wooden blocks yesterday?
  • TIM: Yes I saw them. They were building castles with the wooden blocks and later they left without cleaning up.
  • TINA: Yes, they left the blocks out.
  • CARL: So Jeremy, did you leave out the blocks?
  • JEREMY: Uhhm, I guess..
  • [Cassy writes Jeremy’s testimony on the complaint form]
  • CARL: Any other questions for Tim and Tina?
  • BRANDON: Why didn’t you tell them to clean it up?
  • TIM: There is no obligation for me to explain the rules to others. Also, I was busy with other things.
  • CARL: Any other questions for Tim and Tina? … Seeing none, you can go.
  • [Tim and Tina leave]


  • CARL: I move to charge Jeremy and Joana with the rule “C2: MESS”. Any other charging suggestions? … I see none. Does someone want to vote separately for Joana and Jeremy? … Seeing none. All in favor of C2 for Joana and Jeremy? Remember, only the seven committee members can vote.
  • [Carl, Cassy, Naomi, Betty, Brandon and Stefani raise their hand]
  • CARL: All against?
  • [No hands raised]
  • CARL: Abstentions?
  • [Dave raises his hand]
  • CARL: Six – zero – one. Joana and Jeremy, what’s your plea? You can plead “guilty”, “no contest” or “not guilty”. If you plead not guilty, this case will be referred to School Meeting, who will make a final decision if you are guilty or not.
  • JOANA: Guilty.
  • JEREMY: No contest.
  • [Cassy writes Joana’s and Jeremy’s pleas on the complaint form]


  • JC Clerks during a short break

    CASSY: Any sentence suggestions? Remember, anybody in the room can suggest sentences, including you Joana and Jeremy.

  • [Stefani, Brandon and Naomi and Jeremy raise their hands]
  • STEFANI: Jeremy and Joana have to help clean the Big Room the next time it gets cleaned.
  • BRANDON: Jeremy and Joana can not go into the Big Room for the rest of today and tomorrow.
  • NAOMI: Suspension for a week for both.
  • JEREMY: Warning for both of us.
  • [Cassy writes the sentence suggestions on the back side of the complaint form]
  • STEFANI: Naomi, I think your sentence is too harsh. I believe suspension is appropriate in more serious cases, for example when people hit or insult somebody.
  • CARL: Jeremy, I don’t think a warning is appropriate. You and Joana have been at this school for a year. You have been in JC for messes multiple times already, so you know the mess rule.
  • CASSY: Any other sentence suggestions or are we ready to vote? Remember, anybody can withdraw or amend their sentence suggestion.
  • NAOMI: I withdraw my sentence suggestion.
  • CASSY: Ok, so we have three sentence suggestions. (1) Jeremy and Joana have to help clean the Big Room the next time it gets cleaned. (2) Jeremy and Joana can not go into the Big Room for the rest of today and tomorrow. (3) Warning for Joana and Jeremy. Remember that for sentence voting there are no abstentions. You have to vote in favor of one and against all others. Only committee members can vote. All in favor of (1), the one about cleaning?
  • [Stefani and Dave raise their hands]
  • CASSY: All against?
  • [Cassy, Carl, Brandon, Naomi and Betty raise their hands]
  • CASSY: All in favor of (2), the room ban?
  • [Cassy, Carl, Brandon, Naomi and Betty raise their hands]
  • CASSY: All against?
  • [Stefani and Dave raise their hands]
  • CASSY: All in favor of (3), the warning?
  • [Nobody raises their hands]
  • CASSY: All against?
  • [All raise their hands]
  • CASSY: Sentence number two passes, that is “Jeremy and Joana can not go into the Big Room for the rest of today and tomorrow.” Joana and Jeremy, do you understand your sentence?

    The incident report with notes from JC

  • JEREMY: Yes.
  • JOANA: Yes.
  • CARL: Remember to cross out your sentence on the sentence sheet when you have completed it. Jeremy and Joana, you can go. For the committee, we have two more complaints. Let me read the next one to you […]


After the JC, the JC Clerks file the complaints in a binder, enter all new sentences in a spreadsheet and update the publicly visible overview of current sentences. We don’t have a “Police” that makes sure everybody completes their sentences, instead, students are responsible for knowing and completing their sentences. The staff members try to keep an eye on the sentence sheet and offer support to students, especially for the young or new ones. You can get written up for not complying with your sentence, and you can not go off-campus nor on field trips if you haven’t completed sentences that are five or more days old (usually, students 13 and older can go off-campus for short trips).

[Note: This example is fictional, and it is my personal perception of how JC would address this issue. I don’t claim that this is the official Diablo Valley School or Sudbury way of dealing with things.]

Why do you do this?

The JC is a tool to resolve conflicts and to build and maintain our culture — a culture of respect, responsibility and mindful usage of resources and spaces. We require students to serve on JC because experiencing “both sides” is a key factor in building our culture. We also believe that it is not enough to pass rules, there has to be some kind of consequence if you break them – otherwise, people will not accept it as a rule.

The JC is especially important for more extreme cases than the one described above. For example, if somebody physically hurts someone else, JC might give a one-week suspension as a sentence, but usually the JC refers these cases to School Meeting. The School Meeting has the final say on judicial business. It can change or revoke any sentence, but mostly it deals with aggressive or disrespectful behavior that endangers the safety of the community. If a student keeps hurting others even after multiple sentences and does not show improvement, School Meeting may expel him/her. In fact, you will ultimately be expelled if:

  1. You cannot or don’t want to follow the rules
  2. You don’t respect the decisions made by Judicial Committee and School Meeting
  3. You refuse to serve on JC

Punitive vs. restorative justice

When I visited another Sudbury school, a guest asked, half-jokingly: “So where is your jail?” I want to make absolutely clear that the goal of JC is not to punish, but to heal our community. It is one of the hardest things in the world to come up with good sentences! If somebody breaks a rule for the first time, they will probably only get a verbal warning. But it is the student’s responsibility to follow the rule, so if he/she breaks it again, there will probably be a different consequence. The consequence is not meant to make him/her feel bad, it is meant to make clear that he/she needs to follow the rule. The community might offer support, e.g. a sentence might be to talk to a staff member about anger management strategies. But ultimately, the responsibility for the student’s behavior lies with the student himself/herself.

Children who are new at our school are very scared when they get called into JC for the first time. Some of the language has negative, punitive connotations, like “sentence”, “charge”, “incident report”. I got written up myself, and I felt my heart pumping when I was called to JC, I was very nervous. “I always try to do everything right, so what did I do wrong!?! What will my sentence be? What will people think of me?” I thought. Somebody wrote a complaint that a lot of paper was thrown away where the back sides were still usable for drawing and scribbling. Yes, I did throw some of these papers away, some of them had my own drawings on them and they were wrinkled. I did usually save backsides for reuse, but I did not know that people wanted to keep *all* sheets of paper for their back side. My sentence was a warning. The first time is always exciting I guess.

There is also the possibility to request a mediation, which means that there will be no charges or sentences, just a talk facilitated by the Judicial Committee.

What do children learn?

The main goal of JC is not that the students on the committee learn social skills. The goal of JC is to resolve real conflicts, the goal is to build and maintain our culture. Learning the following amazing and important skills is a by-product, just as all other amazing skills the students learn at Diablo Valley School are a by-product of them living their lives and following their passions.

“The by-product of passion is competence, and the by-product of competence is success.” André Stern, analogous

  • Empathy: It is crucial to empathize with everyone who is involved in the incident to fully understand it, and to come up with sentences that will actually help them to follow the rule next time. Also, sometimes people cry in JC or get really mad, so we have to find strategies to deal with the emotions, but also get the work done.
  • Communication: The whole JC is communication. Without noticing, you learn how to speak for yourself (not for others), how to structure an argument and so much more. The staff and older students are important role models.
  • Respect: No matter what you did, you still deserve respect as a human being.
  • Equality: Everybody gets to present their perspective. Everybody is treated equally.
  • Self-management: Even if you are mad, you have to wait for your turn to speak.
  • Responsibility: You are responsible for your actions, and you will be held accountable. We have a rule about “inappropriate response”, e.g. if someone hits you, you should not hit them back, rather leave the situation and write them up.
  • Integrity: If you lie, it will come to light sooner or later. Contempt of JC is considered a severe offense.
  • Patience: See the example JC above. Now imagine things are not running as smoothly, like a 6-year old throwing a tantrum.
  • Transparency: Anybody can come and listen to the JC, unless the JC Clerks decide that this is a very private matter and close the JC, or they decide too many are in the room already. Anybody in School Meeting can request to see the weekly JC report with all sentences.
  • Democracy: The JC is part of the judiciary branch, but every student and staff is also part of the legislative branch (anybody can propose rules in School Meeting) and of the executive branch (anybody can vote on decisions in School Meeting or become a member of the many committees). As a student at Diablo Valley School, you get to experience all three branches yourself.
  • Justice: What is justice? Difficult to explain in words, but when you are in Judicial Committee you can feel it.

Comparison to traditional schooling

Last but not least: compare this with your own experience of school (if you went to a traditional school). The teacher or the headmaster are the ones delivering justice. Many conflicts don’t reach the attention of teachers and are dealt with among students, many times determined by who is stronger or who is more dominant. A lot of bullying goes unnoticed because victims are too afraid to speak up or don’t believe the teacher’s intervention will help or don’t want to appear as the teacher’s pet. The decision to expel a student is made by the headmaster, sometimes without fair trail. And then they make you sit down for class and teach you about democracy by giving you multiple choice tests, they expect students to develop all of the skills above, while not giving them the time to actually practice them in an authentic context.

“Learning about democracy in traditional school is like reading holiday brochures in prison.” Derry Hannam

Even if there was an actual JC at a traditional school as described above, the teacher would sit in and give grades to each student for how well they participated, according to parameters they took from a government-issued core curriculum. In reality, there is no need to evaluate students because they evaluate themselves and each other constantly – not with words or grades, but everybody feels it. Especially the JC Clerks are under close scrutiny from the community because they run the show and have a lot of influence.

You have made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading. The title of this post refers to the album “…And Justice for All” by Metallica, a band I really like. This title, in turn, refers to the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States. Thoughts and feedback are appreciated! Unless you want to tell me “This post is too long”, I already know that… 3024 words to be exact.

2 thoughts on “…And Justice for All

  1. How would intimidation of witnesses be handled? Aren’t there common ways of manipulating the JC system? People are still people? And don’t snitches get stitches so mostly, or only, staff would be making the complaints?

    • Yes, people are people, and all systems can be abused. This is exactly why I think the system of a JC is implemented intelligently at our school. JC clerks change four times a year. The JC committee changes every week. There is a different staff member on the committee every day. There are a lot of bonds of trust between individual members of our community, so intimidation of witnesses *will* come to light, and if it turns out that you have been heavily threatening witnesses and covering up very serious incidents, you run a high risk of expulsion. People know that.

      I don’t have hard numbers here now, but I think around half the complaints are written by staff. The students are using the judicial system to guarantee their own rights (mostly personal property, freedom from harassment). From my experience students don’t lose status among their peers if they write somebody up (given that you had a sensible reason for the write-up). When they get older they are less likely to use the JC and rather sort out things on their own, but they know that they can always write something up if they can’t handle it.

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