Deepening Democracy

How one school’s fairness committee offers an alternative to “discipline”

By Maria Hantzopoulos

Illustrator: Jordin Sip

Illustration: Jordin Sip

On any given day at Humanities Prep, a small public high school in Manhattan, it is not uncommon to see the hallways teeming with students long after school hours. While many are catching up on schoolwork, others might be playing chess or ping-pong, listening to music, or just lounging on the couches of what everyone calls Prep Central, our communal work and social space for students and teachers. It is usually a welcoming and friendly scene, free from the typical confines of the regular school day.

But one late afternoon I came down the stairs from the second floor to discover broken glass scattered all over the floor. Feeling a breeze from behind, I realized that someone had smashed the stairwell window, and I suspected it was an intentional act. I immediately went to report it so it could be cleaned up, though I felt overwhelmed by sadness. Acts of vandalism were rare in the school and usually represented some rupture in our attempt to build a community of trust. When I went into Prep Central, I casually shared with the remaining students and teachers what I had discovered. All of the students seemed shocked at what had happened, and no one seemed to know who did it or why it happened.

About 45 minutes later, Luther approached me as I was hanging some artwork on the bulletin board. He was in the group of students I had discussed the incident with earlier. Usually his booming voice reverberated in the hallway, but now he barely mustered a whisper, “Maria, I was the one that broke the window.” I sighed, not sure what to say, and asked, “Well, what do you think we should do?” “I think I should take myself to Fairness Committee,” he said without hesitation. As I reflect upon this now, I realize that Luther had sat on the fairness committee before, so he probably knew it was a space he could feel safe talking about what he had done.


The fairness committee, which has existed since the school first opened in 1993 (as a mini-school), is a nontraditional model of school discipline that seeks to create, through dialogue and by consensus, appropriate responses for community norm violations, rather than simply mete out prescribed punishments.

The cofounders of the school, Perry Weiner and Christina Kemp, were interested in ways to strengthen the new school community and define a solid school culture built upon democratic ideals. The design of the original school included structures like town meeting, advisory, and thematic heterogeneous-aged classes, so that student voice was at the center of all school activity. Inspired by a visit to Scarsdale Alternative School in upstate New York, which had its own fairness committee, Perry, Christina, and a few students also realized that “discipline” could be done differently and inclusively. They decided to modify Scarsdale’s version to fit the mission and needs of Humanities Prep.

As it currently stands, the fairness committee is a micro-form of “restorative justice” that is intentional and purposeful; it is a school structure that allows students, teachers, and any other member of our community to grapple with the broader ideals that define our school culture — and the ones that we hope shape all of our interactions beyond school. We hope the fairness committee can inspire empathetic and critical self-reflection and help us determine how best to restore and mend the community in the wake of actions inconsistent with its values.

How It Works

When a fairness committee session is called to order, it is because one member of the community believes that another has violated one of the school core values (respect for humanity, the intellect, truth, and diversity, or a commitment to peace, justice, and democracy). Anyone can be taken to fairness: A student can take another student, a teacher can take a student, and a student can even take a teacher. In Luther’s case, he actually took himself.

Present at the committee meeting are the person who called the committee to order (that person may have been directly violated or simply witnessed the violation), the person who is being taken to fairness, one facilitator teacher, and a talking committee of one teacher and two other students who are unfamiliar with the situation at hand. The committee is convened ad hoc, though the facilitators reach out to new and veteran students and staff for inclusion on the committee. In this way, the entire school is involved in the process of creating, through dialogue and by consensus, consequences for the violation of school community norms.

The fairness committee is encouraged to ask questions, listen to all parties, and help uncover all the various truths of the situation. The end result is never predicted prior to the meeting, for the structure emphasizes process and real dialogue over product and fixed outcome. After everyone has discussed the issue, the entire committee — including the person being taken to fairness — decides if there should be any consequence and if so, what that consequence is. In many cases, the fairness committee reveals that there was a misunderstanding. Other times, it uncovers a deeper conflict, one that would be better addressed in a different venue (which could be one of the consequences). Often it unearths that a community norm was violated, and subsequently begins a process to discuss and analyze the effects of this violation on the individual and the community at large. Throughout the whole committee meeting, all agree that the contents of the discussion remain confidential to respect the privacy of those involved.

Luther’s case is unusual in that he took himself to fairness, though typical in that we came up with appropriate, contextual alternatives. During that session, the members of the committee found out that the day before he broke the window, his family received notice that they were being kicked out of their shelter and had no place to go. While this did not fully excuse his actions, we were able to discuss more fully and fairly what the consequences should be, as well as discuss more constructive ways to deal with anger. We jointly decided that he needed to give back to the school community in some way. Knowing that it would be ridiculous to ask a student who was homeless to pay for the window, we all agreed he would help answer the phone after school for a month. In the meantime, his advisor and the school social worker were able to reach out to his family and offer support. If the fairness committee had been a systematic, rigid mechanism, we would not have been able to brainstorm these solutions.

Not all fairness committee sessions disclose such life circumstances, though they often allow deeper conversations to take place. The committees are mostly used for seemingly mundane occurrences, ones that are often ignored and unchecked in some school environments, despite their potential to hurt the community. For example, I have sat on several fairness committees where students have held their peers accountable for inappropriate language, disrespect for other students, cheating, etc.

One student took his best friend to fairness because he was worried that he had been missing too much school and that he would not graduate. What ensued was a valuable discussion about that student and his needs. The committee was able to offer a suggestion to monitor his attendance that, after the conversation, was nonthreatening and supportive. The possibilities are endless.

Students do not always embrace the fairness committee wholeheartedly and many are initially opposed to the process. In one case, Alex, who had already been taken to the committee by other students at least three other times for the same reason (relentless teasing), was incredibly resistant and mistrustful of the process. Since he had been through it before, he honestly did not buy in and claimed that it would never work for him. And frankly, when Tania approached me to set up the meeting (for “jokingly” calling her stupid), I wondered, given past experiences, if it would be the best venue to discuss the situation with him. In fact, the first part of the meeting was practically unbearable for everyone involved. Alex was sullen and angry and did not understand why he had to be there, with the other two students and the two other teachers, to discuss something that was “not that serious and none of our business.” His head hung low and his eyes remained fixed on the table.

Fortunately, there was one student on the committee who for two years prior had been continually brought to the committee for similar reasons. While she was mostly quiet for the first part of the meeting, when she spoke about her own experiences and realizations, his gaze, which had been glued to the table for the first 20 minutes of the meeting, shifted upward to meet her eyes. “You know, I have sat exactly where you are sitting,” she said. “Different people kept taking me here and I kept thinking it wasn’t me. It was them. But then, after the fourth or fifth time, I realized that maybe it was something that I was doing. Do you think that you actually might have something to do with it?” While Alex did not necessarily share or reveal much about his motivations during that meeting, there was a subtle transformation in his interactions with others from that day on. This is not to say that this one experience “changed” this student. That would be too simplistic and would discredit all of the other influences and events that shape our lives. But it revealed how we, as educators, can generate spaces with our students that enable us to confront our cynicism and develop our capacity for empathy and tolerance.

Listening to Students

The fairness committee models a deeper form of democracy, one that is as inclusive as possible. By allowing for the multiple perspectives of the community to be a part of the process, we dismantle hierarchical impositions of truth. Most importantly, it brings in the voices of the students, who are often marginalized from such processes. In traditional school settings, students do not necessarily have the opportunity to address concerns or issues in an organic and respectful way. This method of bringing members of the community together validates students as thinkers and decision makers, and reinforces the idea that they have a stake and voice in their communities.

As educators who are situated in structural positions of power, processes like fairness force us to take risks that challenge our positions of privilege. We have to believe that the process will yield something that is better, to put our trust in the group and respect the voices that are present at the table. Student buy-in, feedback, and action are essential in making our school move toward democracy, where people all are respected. Without ways to authentically develop this, we are just paying lip service to democratic ideals.

There is no better time than right now to rethink how schools can be more open, inclusive spaces, especially when federal and state educational policies increasingly become more standardized and bureaucratized. As top-down mandates dictate rigid and pre-fixed outcomes, processes like the fairness committees help us stay true to our missions as educators for social change and justice. Moreover, as our government models bullying and discourages dialogue in the name of “democracy,” these small spaces open up and present alternatives that bring credibility back to the word. This way, as Cornell West writes in Democracy Matters, democracy can be understood as “more of a verb than a noun — [as] a more dynamic striving and collective movement than a static order or stationary status quo.”

We, as educators and visionaries, have the capacity to create schools where all actors contribute to decision making. If we can approach and inch toward democracy in our schools, then our young people might feel empowered to challenge, act, and engage in other public spaces as well.

Maria Hantzopoulos ( has been a social studies teacher at Humanities Preparatory Academy, a Coalition of Essentials Schools Mentor School, in New York City for eight years. She is currently pursuing a doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University, in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies.