25 SES 10 A, Children's right to participation - School
This study explored the conflicts and balances between participation rights and other rights in the context of student participation in the deliberations of disciplinary committees in Israeli democratic (free) schools. It aims to contribute to a deeper understanding of an organizational ethos that sanctifies student participation and, accordingly, integrates it in all its practices. The study posed the following research questions:
- How do democratic schools implement student participation rights in their disciplinary procedures?
- Whether and how do student participation rights interact with other rights?
Anchored in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989; hereinafter, UNCRC), the prominence of children's right to participation has emerged in various aspects regulating children's lives (see Gal & Duramy, 2015; Lundy, 2007). Generally, studies on children's participation rights have espoused a supportive approach, often neglecting the ramifications of participatory practices (see Perry-Hazan, in press). Some scholars have argued in this regard that critical voices about participation have been muted, as the promotion of participation has become a "moral crusade" (Lewis, 2010, p. 15) or a taken-for-granted "mantra" (Tisdall & Punch, 2012, pp. 251, 254).
One reason for this uncritical approach may be that scholars who study children's rights are typically supporters of human rights themselves, thus tending to advocate participation (Quennerstedt, 2013). Moreover, children's rights and children's participation are relatively novel concepts. From an historical point of view, the desire to raise the profile of such research required the researchers to close ranks, presenting a relatively uniform message so that their avant-garde ideas would be accepted (James, 2007).
Furthermore, participation rights remain underexplored in the context of participatory conflict resolution strategies in schools. This lacuna is troubling, as many schools worldwide currently seek alternative disciplinary policies in light of a growing disappointment in traditional punitive approaches (e.g., Kupchik, 2010). Whereas some studies have addressed participatory disciplinary methods, including peer mediation (e.g., Philipson, 2012,) restorative practices (e.g., Morrison & Vaandering, 2012), and youth courts (e.g., Cole & Heilig, 2011), research on children's participation in disciplinary committees of democratic schools remains scarce (Prud'homme, 2012).
This study aims to address these gaps in the literature. First, it offers a critical analysis of participation rights and their intersection with other rights. Second, it sheds light on participatory conflict resolution strategies in Israeli democratic schools, a domain that has yet to be explored.
The term "democratic schools," as used in this research, refers to a variety of schools in which students participate in the school's management by means of a regulated, democratic procedure. Notable examples include Summerhill School in England, Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, and the Democratic School of Hadera in Israel.
Democratic schools exemplify an organizational ethos that sanctifies students' participation. This ethos is manifested in a whole-school approach, encompassing the entire school and integrating participation in all school practices (see Korkmaz & Erden, 2014; Wilson, 2015). Students in democratic schools are active participants in every domain of school life. Each student can determine his or her own schedule, and the entire student body can actively participate in the school's management (Hecht & Ram, 2010). These schools' disciplinary systems are based on committees comprising both students and teachers. Any conflict or breaching of rules is submitted to those committees, whose members conduct a trial and reach a verdict (Greenberg, 1991; Hecht, 2005).
This research was conducted in three democratic schools in Israel. School A is a relatively large democratic school with more than 600 enrolled students aged 4–18. School A follows the Democratic School of Hadera's model (see Hecht, 2005, hereinafter, the Hadera model). School B is a smaller and younger school, with more than 200 enrolled students aged 6–18. Whereas School B also follows the Hadera model, the students' freedom in this school is somewhat more constrained than in other democratic schools. School C is a Sudbury school, based on the Sudbury Valley School's model (see Greenberg, 1991). This school has around 100 enrolled students aged 4–19. The study used qualitative methods. The participants in the three schools were 37 children, aged 8–19, 16 teachers, 13 parents, and two school principals. All adults and 16 of the 37 children participated in an individual semi-structured interview. The remaining 21 children participated in focus groups comprising 2–3 children each. The interviews were conducted during 2019-2020. Most participants (N = 53) were interviewed in person, whereas the remainder were interviewed via Zoom when the schools were closed due to the Covid-19 crisis (N = 17). The interview protocols included questions about the school's disciplinary system, the participants' opinion about this system, and the participants' experiences with the system. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. In addition, relevant documents were collected and analyzed. These documents included school rules, relevant forms, and documents delineating the committees' duties and ideology. The research procedures were approved by the Ministry of Education (approval No. 10938) and by the IRB of our university (approval No. 218/18). The data were analyzed using a grounded theory approach. To ensure reliability, each of the authors reviewed the transcriptions independently and recorded suggestions for categories. A primary theme of conflict between rights emerged from this analysis. Relevant categories were organized into four subthemes. Each subtheme reflects a conflict between the right to participation and another right.
The findings revealed numerous conflicts between participation rights and other rights. First, the presence of children-judges in trials derogated children's privacy rights (UNCRC, Article 16). Moreover, some discussions took a semi-mediatory form, requiring the children to share their feelings and private personal information beyond the context of the case. We also identified conflicts between children's participation rights and protection rights (UNCRC, Article 19). In some cases, violent children received no guidance regarding how to improve their behavior. The teachers perceived the trial and punishment by the committee to be sufficient for addressing repeated disciplinary problems. Therefore, typically no long-term educational or therapeutical intervention was implemented. Another type of conflict relates to the children's best interest (UNCRC, Article 3). Certain cases requiring a swift and urgent response were delayed several months for their turn, as the democratic schools' rules required that all conflicts be resolved solely by the committee. Finally, in certain cases, the individual aspect of participation rights conflicted with its collective aspect. Some children had difficulties expressing themselves before the judges, preferring a private conversation with a familiar adult. Moreover, some children-judges limited the parties' participation rights by demonstrating impatience or not attending to the trial proceedings. The study's findings highlight the importance of considering other rights of children that may be derogated by an imbalanced implementation of participation rights in schools. Moreover, the findings demonstrate possible conflicts between collective and individual participation rights, which have yet to be addressed in the children's rights literature. The critical analysis of children's participation rights may help educators shape practices that facilitate implementing children's rights, recognizing that these rights are always interdependent, interconnected, and indivisible (United Nations, n.d.)
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