Saturday, March 28, 2015

Balancing Transparency and Discretion, Part II

Earlier in the week I received this compelling email from a friend:

I'm thinking of proposing a policy at our democratic free school where charges of misconduct will be handled at the plenary level—in a meeting of the entire school. (I'm writing you because I often look to intentional communities instead of other alternative schools for inspiration about good process, because other schools don't use consensus like we do, and don't have as high a degree of student involvement.)

Some people in the school community have concerns about my proposal because they believe that not every matter of safety should go to the whole school for consideration. Their main concern is in dramatic incidents like sexual or physical assault, where they are worried that a kid may feel afraid to go in front of the everyone to talk about what happened. What would you recommend?  

A counter-proposal is for a small conflict resolution group to make the decision, or to make a recommendation to the plenary, keeping information about the victim confidential. My hesitation with this approach is that we have used a committee for conflict resolution in the past and, in my opinion, it overstepped its authority and made big decisions without disclosing the details to the community.

What a good question! It's an attempt to balance due process (fairness) with confidentiality and the protection of both: a) the victim, from the potential embarrassment of having their experience examined in a public setting; and b) the accused, from the possibility of having their name smeared before it’s been determined if they’ve done anything wrong. In essence, this is another version of a topic I first wrote about July 31, 2014: Balancing Transparency and Discretion. It also touches on the dynamic tension between public and private: at what point is it the group's business to know about a private matter?

I think the priorities here are:

1. Having the lowest possible barriers to issues related to the group coming out, so that wrongs can be addressed and the innocent protected. You don't want: a) murky standards of accountability to undermine the group's resolve to address issues; nor b) your willingness to examine issues to be daunted by the prospect of volatility in the exploration.

2. Proceeding in a way that protects both authenticity and compassion. Thus, you want relevant information to be shared as widely as seems appropriate (trust is directly related to the dissemination of accurate information), yet at the same time you want to proceed in a way that seems least threatening and most accessible for the principal players.

Taken all together, I think what works best in this regard is a carefully selected Ministry Committee (the name is a traditional one in Quaker circles, referring to the task of laboring with members in tension with each other or with the group, and does not relate the relationship between individual and spirit). I like this approach because it tends to be less overwhelming than the plenary (supporting the concern raised by those uneasy with my friend's proposal), and because the committee members can be selected carefully to highlight the qualities wanted in this committee—which will hopefully translate into their being able to proceed more sensitively and sagaciously than the plenary.

Their mandate would be to hear and oversee the handling of complaints about member conduct that are not resolvable directly or informally.

In pursuit of its work, the committee would keep several things in mind:

A. Their first task will be to determine if the accusation places the school at risk such that the civil authorities need to be called in, or the rest of the school needs to be apprised immediately because of overriding concerns for endangerment to life or property.

B. If the danger or urgency of the accusation does not justify informing the whole school at the outset (Point A), then, at the conclusion of the investigation, the committee will discuss with the accused and the accuser what can be shared with the whole school, where the committee will try to secure permission to disseminate an even-handed summary of what happened as broadly as possible within the school community. 

C. Outside of what is agreed to be shared with the whole school or with the proper civil authorities (under Points A & B above), the committee is expected to not discuss details of the incident or its investigation with anyone outside the committee. This agreement notwithstanding, the committee may deem it prudent to keep sealed records of its investigations, against the possibility of future incidents of a similar nature, or involving the same players.

D. If Point A does not obtain, then the committee will conduct its investigation is such a way that is most comfortable for both the accuser and the accused, regarding matters of setting, timing, and support. (Note that the accuser and accused may have very different preferences in this regard, requiring delicate negotiations to resolve.)

E. If the committee recommends that punitive or behavior-limiting consequences are appropriate, then these will be discussed with the school’s governing board and ratified or adjusted as appropriate before they are implemented. That is, the committee is not licensed to impose sanctions on their own without review. This caveat accomplishes two things: 1) defanging the committee for those fearing its wrath; and 2) curtailing concerns about a runaway committee that exceeds it authority.

1 comment:

Alyson Ewald said...

Thanks, Laird, for your thoughts on this compelling question!

As it happens, just this morning I was watching some videos with Dominic Barter exploring this very topic.

Your correspondent and other readers may be interested in using Restorative Circles, which are used frequently in my community as well as in schools and neighborhoods around the world.

Restorative Circles allow the people experiencing a conflict or act of harm to choose how, when, with whom, and even whether to go forward with the conversation. People check at the door any roles they may be carrying such as "teacher" or "student" or "principal." All participate as humans seeking restoration of their connections with other humans, along with security or whatever other needs they may have.

In a restorative system (as opposed to a punitive system) all the people involved come together to understand each other, to explore what happened, and to find acts that will be restorative or reparative. No one is singled out as the victim or perpetrator, because anyone present may be feeling victimized by another person or by an oppressive system.

A host of the circle supports the participants in hearing each other and coming up with a mutually agreeable action plan.

I encourage your correspondent to investigate how such a system may lead to greater satisfaction in their school's justice system.

Readers can learn more at

All the best,