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Building Blocks of Democratic Education: #5 Individual Rights

This series of Building Blocks of Democratic Education began with time and trust, continued with democratic process and equality, and ends with individual rights. Each of the building blocks is important in creating a democratic school – a place where children can grow into independent, responsible adults. While the first four blocks are essential, the fifth must be cherished or the school will not provide a free and fulfilling democratic environment.

We are protective of individual rights in our judicial system, in our General School Meeting (GSM), and in our daily lives. We believe that each individual child is unique and possesses the innate ability to reach out and interact. We also recognize that children’s differences in viewpoints and interests are valuable to our democratic society. We need their unique approaches to problem-solving, learning, and creating solutions to give us a free and dynamic community. We maintain a judicial structure to protect individuals from the weight of social conformity of thought and assumptions which can happen in any group.

For example, we once had a school member, George, a boy of about 10, who loved to take things apart. He wasn’t always careful about where he got the various objects he disassembled. He frequently ran up against the school community for breaking rules and became known as a trouble maker. During the same time period, we had another boy, Matthew, who was a bit older and very concerned about following rules. He attended GSM helping to make rules and solve problems. Matthew was meticulous about taking care of his possessions and was known in the community as a responsible leader.

School members took a school camping trip to a major city at the end of the year. Both boys came on the trip. Everyone camped together in large tents, sleeping on cots. One day, Matthew discovered that his wallet was missing. He immediately accused George of taking it. What ensued could have been a large miscarriage of justice because most of the school members who knew George, believed him capable of stealing Matthew’s wallet. Matthew attempted to attack George and make him tell where he put the wallet. We held a judicial meeting and conducted a thorough search of the tent. We found the wallet hidden in Matthew’s mattress where he finally remembered he had put it. Insisting on the maxim that each individual has the right both to be presumed innocent and have due process in the judicial system, led us to the realization that George was not a thief. It could have worked out very differently, and George could have been sent home if his rights had not been protected.

The incident with George and Matthew took place early in the life of the school. Since then, we adopted a Constitution, and created safeguards to protect individual rights in our judicial system. When new children begin school at Highland, they often take a while to understand about individual rights. The tendencies to take what you want or to physically retaliate from being wronged can be strong in newcomers. After a few complaints and judging sessions, most learn that individual rights apply to everyone. At that point, young students can be heard yelling, “that’s my right!” or “ Stop infringing on my rights!” Parents can go through a tough time as kids insist on their rights at home. If newcomers exaggerate their rights at the beginning, however, they eventually come to see the advantages of discovering who they are and investigating their own interests - even if no one else in the community shares their passions. The freedom to figure out who they are is a basic right in students’ everyday lives. Our democratic school benefits from the unique contributions stemming from protecting each student's individual rights.

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