Restorative Practice and the Sudbury Model

Most people are familiar with the methods of punishment used in mainstream schools. Rules are made and enforced from the top down, and students have little or no power to influence these structures. Students face consequences for stepping out of line even in very minimal ways, like forgetting a homework assignment or running late for class. Punishment often involves being singled out in front of one’s peers, and this disregard for students’ dignity tends to lead students to respect the rules less rather than more.

And why should students respect the rules, when the rules so often reflect a lack of respect for the students and sometimes a lack of logic? I’ve met female students who have been suspended for wearing their hair too short, boys who have been sent home for having facial hair or the sides of their heads shaved, and others who’ve been removed from class for not having the school jacket, or for wearing white runners. Rules tell students where to be, how to act, how to dress, and so on, as if students are incapable of correctly deciding these matters on their own. Not only that, but many times rules are used as arbitrary ways if maintaining power and control and showing who’s boss.

At Wicklow Sudbury, we are certainly not proposing a rule-free learning zone, since any shared space will generally benefit from having certain ground rules. Rather, the Sudbury model encourages students to decide their own rules. All rules are voted on, and every member of the school has an equal vote. If anyone feels a rule is unfair or could be improved upon, they can propose to amend a rule or get rid of it altogether. The students respect the rules because they made the rules and because the rules are not there to control the students, but rather to make the school environment safe, enjoyable, and conducive to learning for everyone.

Along these lines, students also reinforce the rules at Wicklow Sudbury. If someone breaks a rule, another student or staff member can fill out a complaint form. These complaints are handled by a rotating jury of peers in the Judicial Committee, or JC, which meets once a day if needed.

In a typical meeting of the JC, the person who was written up is asked if they broke the rule, and given a chance to explain themselves. Often, there’s no charge and the case is thrown out. This might happen when, for example, someone is written up for not sweeping the floor, but, when they have a chance to explain, it turns out they actually did sweep the floor, but it’s not uncommon for clean floors to become dirty again fairly quickly in our school. In other cases, the person who was written up might be given a warning, or, if the person has made a series of similar infractions, a sanction may be given. These types of JC procedures are part of the Sudbury model, so very similar practices would be found in every Sudbury school.

That said, over the course of the year and a half since Wicklow Sudbury opened, our students have identified some areas in need of improvement in the school’s justice system. They found that the process worked well enough for issues like forgetting to clean up after lunch, but for other issues, the JC process seemed somewhat rigid and cold, focusing only on whether or not the rule was broken and not considering why it was broken or whether or not an underlying issue needed to be addressed. Non-violent communication is a core value of our school community, and we wanted to learn more about how to resolve conflict in a restorative way.

This is where the ideas of restorative practice came in. Restorative practices emerged from the practice of restorative justice, which was predominantly used to address crime and involves the offender taking responsibility for their actions and the victim participating in the restitution, often through mediation with the offender. However, while restorative justice is primarily reactive, restorative practices are more proactive. These practices are used to help prevent the escalation of conflict, mediate and resolve conflict, and actively build relationships and community in a variety of environments, including schools.

Last Friday, we welcomed Michelle Stowe into our school to lead a day-long workshop around restorative practices. Simply put, restorative practices are about centering the harm, not the blame. There is already an emphasis on building strong relationships and community in Wicklow Sudbury, but through every activity and discussion in the workshop, it became more and more clear to the students and staff present that the concepts of restorative practice needed to be incorporated into our JC as well.

In practice, this could mean that, instead of blaming someone for not cleaning up their dishes, there would instead be a conversation around why the person did not clean up and what the consequences or harms caused by that action were. The experience of breaking a rule then becomes a learning and growing opportunity rather than just a placement of blame and allocation of punishment. Restorative practice takes individuals’ feelings into account and acknowledges that there is often an underlying issue behind rule breaking that needs to be addressed.

Communication exercise – lowering a bamboo stick without losing contact

Learning about restorative practices and how to incorporate them into our school has been another meaningful way we at Wicklow Sudbury are using democratic structures to shape our school community to better reflect our values and to keep growing and improving.

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And let us know what you think! Should young people have a say in rule-making at school? Have you encountered restorative practice before?

Written by Rachel Kuhn

4 thoughts on “Restorative Practice and the Sudbury Model

  1. Louisa

    I am delighted to read this article – I have been learning about the Sudbury School model since hearing of one opening in Kent, and the one thing that really bothers me is the “judicial system”, so I am over the moon to hear that you have adopted restorative practices, and I really hope that other schools, Sudbury, and others will follow your lead.
    The one other thing that I am uncertain about is the democratic system you use. I wonder if you might shift more towards deep democracy and away from the majority vote (and therefore rule) system?
    Have you shared your experience of your restorative programme with other Sudbury schools?

    1. Anonymous

      Hi Louisa, thank you for your comment. As it is still early days for us, we are still feeling our way into this, but so far we are really happy with how things are going. At some point in the future we will definitely be interested in writing further about it.
      Deep democracy is a subject I am personally interested in learning more about, and am doing so. 🙂
      Ciara Brehony
      Founder and Staff member

  2. Perhaps as a result of the culture in which our Sudbury model School existed, our Justice Committee couldn’t simply deal with complaints in a simple form, based just on guilt or innocence. We believed that the school’s culture would develop better by talking through the issues and circumstances that gave rise to the complaints in the first instance. JC became a central, vital learning medium, where law, met philosophy, met emotional intelligence, met physicality, met effective communication including active listening. There were still clear outcomes of the complaint either being dismissed, or a warning issued, or a consequence imposed (and administered by JC Clerks), even as much as, based on the severity of the incident, a recommendation of suspension to be heard by the next weekly School meeting, or a specially convened School Meeting, or the recommendation of expulsion, which happened only once, or a recommendation to the fire Staff, which happened once. Having said this, it is very clear that almost every Sudbury School is on a journey, of discovery, during which each school needs to work through issues and resolve them democratically in their own way, as they arise. It’s simply not possible to replicate Sudbury Valley School without experiencing all that it has, and which other schools undoubtedly will, over time – remembering that SVS has 50 years of evolved democratic development under its belt. It’s Justice system is so well embedded and evolved that it’s JC’s in dealing with Complaints from 150 and more Students and Staff, are quick, to the point and decisive.

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