The Individual in Community at Sudbury

Associated School: 

Last week we had a trial that raised some interesting questions about the age-old problem of individual rights vs. community - an intense philosophical, political, and metaphysical problem that still vexes human society and makes the news every day.

In a certain respect, Sudbury is an experiment in finding the balance between individual and community; individuals have freedom, but that freedom is limited by the freedom of others.  Sudbury thus hangs - like the rest of nature - in a delicate balance, and that balance is protected by our justice system.

Here’s what happened: the Judicial Committee needed a replacement member, and the next student on the list was asked to serve.  He was in the middle of something and initially refused.  This is a clear violation of the JC policies; service is not optional.  After a minute or so of haggling, though, he consented, and reported to the JC room in an angry huff.  He stormed in, did not answer a friendly greeting, plopped into a seat, and glared.  He did not vote on the first item that came up, and when he was asked if “this is the way it’s going to be,” he responded, “yeah, I’m pissed off.” JC then decided to replace him.  Later, he was charged with violating JC rules and procedures, essentially because he disrupted their process and ultimately refused to participate.  He plead Not Guilty.

At trial, I was the prosecutor.  The case looked simple: there were clear violations of JC policies, and I laid these out for the jury, adding that the defendant was not charged for his feelings, but for allowing his anger to disrupt the processes of JC.  But the defendant insisted that he was being persecuted for merely being angry, that he didn’t waste significant time, and that he would have cooled off if given the chance.  He rhetorically asked if a School Meeting Member would be charged if they were overcome with sadness - or another emotion - and thus unable to serve.  My response was that the defendant was angry about having to perform his community duty, which led him to shirk it, and that the disruption was significant enough for JC to write him up for it.  If, at the time he was asked to serve, he was very angry about something else, perhaps things would have been handled differently (although legally they shouldn’t be).  I wish I had added that we need to be able to regulate our emotions at least to the degree that we may avoid trampling on other individuals or the community.

The jury returned the surprising verdict of Not Guilty, swayed by the idea that the defendant should not be convicted because he was temporarily compelled by emotion and should have been allowed a chance to self-regulate.  I think they got this one wrong.  The defendant’s anger at having to perform a community duty caused him to neglect that duty; if the community tolerates that, then it is elevating the individual above the community in a potentially dangerous way, supporting an ideology in which community duties are onerous and/or unimportant.  In reality the needs of individuals and the needs of the community are not so distinct, and personal freedom is supported by the structures of the community.  Without JC, we would not have Sudbury.

I somewhat sympathize with the jury though, because we had indeed stumbled into the complex territory of determining under what circumstances we may legitimately excuse a SM Member from performing community duties.  I appreciate that in their hesitancy - in their doubt, which they considered reasonable - they chose Not Guilty, and I also appreciate that they were able to do that despite being told by an adult prosecutor that the opposite was correct.  After the verdict, I talked to a couple jurors, and they had interesting questions on their minds about the limits and exceptions to mandatory JC duty: what if I am having a profoundly miserable day, week, month - may I be excused?  What if I have a cognitive difference significant enough to make my participation a burden to the process of the JC - may I be excused? What if the Red Sox have just won the World Series and I have been thrust me into ecstatic rapture - may I be excused?  What if I have just reached a critical step in a chemistry experiment that cannot wait or my data will be spoiled - may I be excused? The policies state that JC is a mandatory community duty, but it’s not clear to me that all these cases would be handled the same way.  Perhaps the answer to all the above questions should be “No.”  What do you think?

It seems that the staff who know about the trial are in unanimous disagreement with the jury.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way; our students learn by making real decisions that actually affect people, not by responding to theoretical prompts that we cook up for them (and have nothing real at stake).  I wouldn’t want to attempt to assert some kind of adult authority and overrule the decision.  Doing so would not only subjugate our students, it would relieve them of responsibility - they would no longer have to think and act on difficult matters together, and they could passively rely on adults to make decisions for them (and then blame those same adults for making the decisions without full understanding of the situation!)

Closing thought: It seemed to me that - despite winning - the defendant himself changed his mind somewhat over the course of the trial, and I doubt very much that he will ever behave that way again.

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Hudson Valley Sudbury School

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Kingston, NY 12401
Phone: 845-679-1002
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