Freedom from Bullying: How a School Can Be a Moral Community
Every school should be, first and foremost, a moral community.
Posted June 8, 2010
Many years ago, as part of my early studies of the Sudbury Valley School, I sat in on a school meeting at which the main agenda item had to do with a complaint made about a new student's clothing. A new teenaged enrollee had been coming to school wearing a leather jacket with a swastika painted on it. At most schools this kind of offence would be quickly and efficiently handled by the principal, who would call the student into his or her office and order the student to remove the jacket and never bring it back to school. But that's not how Sudbury Valley handles things. Sudbury Valley has no principal. It is run--entirely run--in democratic fashion by the School Meeting, which includes all students (age 4 on through high-school age) and staff members together. [For more about the school, see Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley.]
The debate that I listened to that day was one befitting the Supreme Court of the United States. There was talk on the one hand of freedom of speech. Did freedom of speech include the right to wear a swastika? I remember one teenaged girl thoughtfully raising the question this way: "Suppose we ban the swastika? Does that mean we could also ban the hammer and sickle, under which terrible atrocities were committed? And what, then, about the American Flag? Some people might be offended by it, because of atrocities such as slavery and the mass murder of Native Americans that were committed under this banner. Once we start interfering with free speech, where do we stop?"
On the other side, several presented the argument that the swastika is a hate symbol in a way that the hammer and sickle or the flag of any other country is not. History was presented--not to teach history, but simply as part of the process of putting forth an argument that was directly germane to the decision that the group had to make. As the debate continued, the tension between the right of free speech and the right to freedom from offensive speech came into sharp focus.
Most of the people who spoke were staff members and older students, but many younger students were present, by choice (as nobody has to attend school meetings). I could see by their expressions that even the youngest were fully engaged by the discussion. When it came time to vote, their vote was truly informed. They had heard all the arguments, on both sides of the question. An issue about clothing had become a deeply moral question about freedom and how one person's freedom sometimes conflicts with another person's freedom, which is why laws are needed. For the record, the swastika was banned, and the school now has a general rule against the display of hate symbols and the use of words that are commonly understood as expressions of hate toward any group of people, even where hate was not intended.
What does this have to do with bullying? Everything.
In the standard school, the principal, in demanding that the student not wear the swastika, would himself have been engaged in an act of bullying. He would have been using his superior power to inflict his will upon the student, who had no power in that setting. The only lesson that the swastika-wearing student would likely have taken away is that "might makes right"--the lesson of a bullying environment.
At Sudbury Valley, the entire community of people who were affected by the decision made the decision. It was made thoughtfully, morally, through established democratic procedures. The swastika-wearing student, who had the same right to vote as everyone else, knew that it wasn't just one person but the majority of people--including his age-mates as well as the adults and little kids--who were opposed to his wearing that jacket. And he could hear the reasons, presented not by some superior, but developed in an open discussion in which all voices were heard. At the same time, those who were offended by the swastika, and who felt bullied by the student's wearing of it, learned that they didn't have to accept such bullying. They could voice their concern, and their voice was heard and taken seriously by the whole community. That is the messy, inefficient system called democracy.
Some years later, my graduate student Jay Feldman spent hundreds of hours at Sudbury Valley, observing and making notes on students' interactions, both indoors and outdoors on the school campus. His main goal was to understand how education occurs in the school's free environment, but in his report he also noted the astonishing lack of any persistent bullying at the school. Many of the vignettes that he recorded demonstrate ways by which the students themselves, in this environment, nip bullying in the bud when it begins to occur.
His observations made clear that one potent force against bullying at the school derives from the free age mixing that occurs there. The presence of little children, who are known to all, seems to bring out the nurturing qualities in older children, and the spirit of nurturance then transfers even to interactions among age-mates. I wrote about this in a previous essay (Why We Should Stop Segregating Children By Age, Part III). Another potent force, however, clearly comes from the democratic procedures through which the school operates and the spirit of equality and respect for one another that such procedures engender. That is my focus here.
One of the school's most frequently cited rules--made, of course, through democratic vote of the School Meeting--is that referred to as Infringement of Rights. Basically, the rule is this: If you say or do something to someone that is potentially offensive to that person, and if that person asks you to stop but you don't stop, then you have infringed upon that person's right not to be harassed, and that person, or anyone else, can then "bring you up" to the Judicial Committee. The Judicial Committee, or JC, is a standing jury, which meets every day. It is composed of school members of all ages--there is always at least one little kid, one middle kid, one older kid, and one staff member--who serve for a certain designated period of time.
Most often, in simple cases of teasing, the JC attempts to "mediate" the case, that is, to bring it to a conclusion satisfactory to both parties without any formal charges. The accused may apologize and the accuser may accept the apology after explaining how the teasing made him or her feel, and that may be the end of it. If such teasing were to occur again, however, the JC would have to decide on some appropriate punishment for the person who inflicted the teasing. Perhaps that person would be banned, for a week, from the area of the school where the teasing occurred.
What a simple, elegant rule! It solves the problem (in most cases) of deciding whether or not a specific name, joke, or action is "all in good fun" or harassment. It's harassment if the target says, seriously, "I don't like this, so please stop it." In some cases, however, it takes students a while to learn that they have the right to voice objections to teasing, and in those cases someone else may bring up the offender if he or she believes that the target felt harassed or might reasonably have felt so. When this happens the arguments before the JC become more complicated. Not surprisingly, most complaints about teasing are brought by little kids against other little kids. Older kids, in this environment, have usually learned to settle such disputes and respect one another's rights without the JC.
Serving on the JC, which everyone does from time to time, is itself an education in concern for others. On the JC students of all ages have the mature task of listening to and trying to understand both parties in a dispute. The school's judicial system is not designed for education--it is designed for the very practical purpose of settling disputes--but, in fact, each case tried is a real-life lesson in human sensitivity for everyone concerned.
Sudbury Valley calls itself a school, but it is first a foremost a democratic, moral community. Every school member, regardless of age and regardless of status as student or staff, has legal power equivalent to every other member of the school. The official system of authority at the school is not one of bullying; it is not top-down authority based on power differentials. Every voice is respected, and when people are listened to and respected they no longer have a need to bully. In fact, in that environment, they learn that bullying backfires. It does not achieve any useful ends, and it puts you at odds with the rest of the community in ways that make you uncomfortable and lead you to change your ways.
Wouldn't it be nice if all of our schools were, first and foremost, moral communities?
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 Examples can be found in Gray, P. and Feldman, J. (2004). Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School. American Journal of Education, 110, 108-145.