Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Creating School Culture

This guest post by Tom Bohman, staff member at Clearview Sudbury School in Austin, Texas,  provides a fascinating case study of the judiciary process in action. This piece was originally published by Alt Ed Austin, a blog created and edited by Teri Sperry. All photos were part of the original post. Following the article is a comment by Mike South, a cogent articulation of the rationale behind the prevailing vote.

When I read the complaint form to our Judiciary Committee (JC), I knew the day had come when our school would have to decide a thorny issue: How do school rules apply to virtual worlds in multi-player online games? Before telling more about this particular issue, let me explain about our school’s uniquely American way of protecting individual rights while also balancing them with other potentially competing school community concerns.

Students and staff conduct a Judiciary Committee hearing at the Clearview Studbury School

At the Clearview Sudbury School, rules are democratically determined at the School Meeting, in which staff and students have an equal vote. The School Meeting delegates to the JC the responsibility of ensuring that students and staff follow rules and providing a forum to address School Meeting members’ concerns about their rights. Two students and one staff member comprise the JC, and they vote on whether a rule was broken and, if one was, determine a consequence when necessary. A complaint form specifies who is raising the issue, whom the complaint is against, witnesses, and the details of the situation. All School Meeting members can attend JC hearings and ask questions or provide commentary. All students, no matter their age, are expected to serve on the JC, including our youngest students, who may be five years old.

This particular complaint was initiated by an eight-year-old female student (whom we’ll call Amy) against a nine-year-old male student (whom we’ll call Eric) regarding actions that took place in Minecraft, a game that can be played in different ways. Minecraft provides a rich virtual world in which students typically construct amazing structures, especially their houses, in which they invest much creative thought and energy. The game also contains a player versus player (PvP) component in which players compete against each other. Amy's complaint said that Eric had harassed her during the game when, after being invited into Amy’s house, he killed her online character and took resources from the house. I was randomly selected by the JC chair, a nine-year-old student we’ll call Steve, along with a six-year-old student we’ll call Sally, to hear the case.

The JC room was full as Amy and Eric in turn described what happened from their perspectives. Amy reported that she had changed the inside of her house on the Minecraft server that many students played on and invited Eric to see those changes. Amy also said that students on the server typically engaged in creative activities in an open-ended and non-competitive fashion. Eric said he was trying to work on his house and needed the resources that Amy had acquired and decided to take them so he could reach his goal. My reaction was that Eric had violated Amy’s rights to be free from interference by others at school as she pursued her self-directed learning. Eric’s defense, which other School Meeting members strongly supported, was that Eric was playing by the rules of the game as allowed on that particular Minecraft server because PvP mode was turned on (not all Minecraft servers allow this). Since Amy chose to play on that server where PvP was allowed, she had the responsibility to accept that other players could play competitively. I argued that our school should be developing a culture in which our interpersonal relationships count the most, and Amy had asked Eric to stop his activity, which Eric ignored. Eric and other school meeting members said that it was unfair for him to be penalized for following the rules of the game that Amy had implicitly agreed to by playing on that server.

After a long, emotional debate, the three JC committee members voted that Amy had been harassed. Since this was the first time this issue was raised and it was clear that Eric did not know that the harassment rule would be applied in this case, he was given a warning as a consequence.

However, we weren’t quite done. As part of our school’s commitment to due process, where everyone’s rights are protected to the full extent possible, any School Meeting member can appeal a JC decision to the full School Meeting in which everyone, rather than just the three JC members, has a vote. Even though JC members are selected so that they shouldn’t have any conflict of interest or appearance of partiality (e.g., a JC member cannot have written the complaint), we know that in a smaller school, the person receiving the consequence may feel the process was unfair and in such a case we provide the appeal process. In addition, anyone can appeal the verdict. In this case, a staff member and older student appealed, as they felt this case set an incorrect precedent for the school.

The School Meeting was fully attended, and the motion was made (and seconded) to overturn the JC decision that a rule had been broken. The debate was almost as intense as the first one, and additional nuances were brought forward to bolster each side’s position. A majority of the School Meeting participants voted for the motion that overturned the previous JC decision. I felt the sting of defeat for my position and still believe that greater weight should have been given to Amy’s request that Eric stop his actions even when they were permitted by the server. However, the counterargument that Amy needed to take responsibility for playing on that particular server and knowing the rules was persuasive to the majority. Given that students have the freedom to choose what they do during the day at our school, they also have the responsibility to be aware of the consequences of those decisions.

Ultimately, I think Amy felt her concerns were heard and taken very seriously. I think our school’s culture was strengthened by this case in which staff and students were on both sides of the debate. JC is where our culture of freedom and responsibility develops over time as everyone engages in the often difficult decisions of how to balance competing rights and how we define them. At our school, we feel this process is the best way to ensure that everyone is fully respected and heard. I personally hope we revisit this issue in the future since I’m still not convinced we made the best choice. However, I really value that each member of the school has a single vote and that no member of the school community (even staff) can arbitrarily decide that his or her viewpoint outweighs the collective democratic decision making that is an integral part of our school. Democracy is messy, but it still feels like the best way to arrive at decisions.

Comment by Mike South
I think the appeal came to the correct conclusion--it's good that the appeal process is in place.

In my opinion it would be very bad precedent to start imposing real-life-at-the-school rules to things that are taking place outside of the school. If there was a minecraft server hosted at the school that had PvP on but which had an agreement at the school that you would not kill, then Amy would have a claim.

The precedent you would be setting would be that Amy could use the JC to attack someone's behavior on a mailing list, community forum, etc., all of which have their own rules and should be considered outside of JC's jurisdiction. If someone made something at the school, took it home, and a sibling (also enrolled) broke it, that would be something to deal with outside of JC, even if the object was something that the owner was intending to bring back to school or was for a very specific school purpose.

Eric should, in my opinion, be a mensch and give the stuff back, since Amy clearly didn't think she was exposing herself to losing it, but he should choose to do so, not be coerced into it by a JC decision. If he doesn't, he has chosen a path I don't like but he should be at liberty to do so (more on that below).

And one thing that isn't discussed here is that *Amy made a mistake that she should be allowed to learn from* (playing PvP when she didn't mean to be, or playing PvP when she didn't understand (or want to accept) the consequences). If Eric gives her the stuff back of his own free will, she can learn that lesson, and be thankful that he gave it back anyway--if Eric is coerced into giving it back, you are teaching Amy that she can use an end-run around the rules to avoid having to face the consequences of her own actions.

Looking at it from the can-of-worms perspective also argues for the reversal on appeal, I think. You open a bigger can of worms by trying to regulate facebook, twitter, email, blogging, etc "when accessed from school" than you do by saying "the rules of externally administered systems shall be the only rules which denizens of the school shall be considered to be obligated to follow when using those systems, whether they do so from the school or outside of it". That's a clear (if wordy!) expectation that everyone can understand, and once people are aware of it there is no more burden on the school to work those issues out.

I feel what Tom is saying--that he wants the school to be a supportive and non-threatening place, etc. But part of giving people freedom is accepting that they aren't always going to choose to do it the way you want them to. You might want more discussion to be going on where students might want to be loners. If they are on the same mailing list, you might want to have them stick to non-ad-hominem attacks on other school members' arguments, while the rules for the email list clearly state that anything goes. In my opinion, all of these examples would amount to too much infringement on how people choose to conduct themselves.

If the student was hacking the server from school property it would be obvious JC territory, and in that case not just the bad behavior of hacking from school property but harassment might also apply since he went "outside the law" in the other system *from the school*.
I think this is one case where you don't get to control the outcome--you can't expect all consequences of liberty to go the way you think they should. If you did find that happening, it would probably mean that you were dictating the outcome either explicitly or through some more subtle coercive means you weren't aware of. So this is a good thing :).

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