Senate Confirmations, Donuts and the Price of Justice

Last week I found an example of “life imitating life”. Or more specifically life at SVS was imitating life in Washington. I am fascinated by the quirky details of democratic institutions. So, I got a little thrill when the 50-50 vote in the Senate allowed the Vice President, acting as the “President of the Senate”, to cast the tie breaking vote. Article I, Section 3, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution provides this mechanism for resolving tie votes in the Senate. Vice President Pence’s vote was the 245th time the tie-breaking role of the Vice President has been invoked in U.S. history and it had not been used since Vice President Cheney cast a tie-breaking vote in 2008.

My kids understand my fascination with democratic processes, so I can usually count on getting a summary of the SVS School Meeting when I pick them up on Thursday afternoons. Last week, Holly was very excited to tell me how a vote to allow a suspended student to return to school had ended in a tie. Like the Vice President’s role in the U.S. Senate, SVS rules allow the School Meeting Chair, who is normally a non-voting member, to cast a vote in the event of a tie, which he did.

Not only does this story appeal to my love of quirky rules, it also speaks volumes to the depth of the school’s democracy. This was not a student council vote on the color scheme for this year’s prom. This was serious stuff. A student who had been suspended (by vote of the School Meeting) for violating the community’s rules was requesting permission to return to school. The School Meeting had to take measure of the offense committed, the amount of time already suspended and trickiest of all, the sincerity of the student’s assertion that they had learned enough from their mistake. A tie vote shows the true living nature of the process. The School Meeting is not simply some form of rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere. Real decisions with real consequences are made at the School Meeting, and each vote counts.

As I understand it, the elected, 17-year-old School Meeting Chair, voted against allowing the student to return to school. My in-house pundits tell me that when the student returns next week or the week after, their request to return to school will likely be granted.

The School Meeting is one of the two main pillars of self-government at SVS. The other institution is the Judiciary Committee (JC). The JC is chaired by a pair of elected JC clerks who serve 2.5 month terms. In addition to the JC clerks, the JC consists of 5 students of various ages and one staff person. The service of the 5 students and one staff person is vaguely analogous to jury duty, with the students serving 1 month terms.

My oldest daughter Cori, served as a JC clerk in the fall and Holly was on JC duty during the month of February. It was probably during her term that the student seeking to return from suspension was initially investigated, though I don’t recall her telling the details of that case. The JC can hand out sentences for some offences, though something as severe as suspension is referred to School Meeting.

Holly recently revealed to me a quirky JC tradition. Apparently, there is a long tradition of the elected JC clerks buying donuts for those serving on JC on the last day of their service. I secretly wondered what a “long tradition” means to my 13-year-old. Did the jurors who convicted Socrates to death in 399 BCE get a donut? Or is it just something that has happened for as long as she has paid any attention to how JC works? Well in any case, she revealed an important SVS secret to me. Sometimes if one of the students on JC duty is sick or otherwise un-available, someone will be asked to substitute for the day. If you can, substituting on the last day of the month is particularly advantageous because for one day’s service you get a donut!

I asked her if that was why she had served during the month of February. She gave me an incredulous look and explained that she had served because she had to. Also, she pointed out, because the last day of February coincided with the last day of skiing at Mt. Wachusett, she had missed the last JC session for her term. Some lucky JC substitute got her donut! Aside from the donut, JC duty is unpaid.

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