Community Issues

Judge Sentences Teens to Read About Racism--And it Works

Judge, Prosecutor use vandalism of a historic schoolhouse as an educational opportunity for teenagers charged.

A creative sentence from a Virginia judge and prosecutor appears to have worked.

Back in 2016, five teens in Ashburn, VA were charged with vandalism after they spray-painted graffiti on a historic schoolhouse that was used to educate black children. The grafitti included swastikas and other racist statements. However, the prosecutor realized that the teens did not recognize the historic significance of the building, or how hurtful their actions were.

Teens vandalized a historic schoolhouse used to educate black children during the era of segregation. Courtesy the Framers Project.

"The graffiti was racially charged - they had spray-painted swastikas and phrases like 'White Power' and 'Brown Power'," Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda told the BBC. But she says there were also drawings that were obviously just the work of bored kids.

"I thought, 'This doesn't look like the work of sophisticated KKK people out to intimidate - it looks more like the work of dumb teenagers.'"

Rueda says that despite public outcry, she realized this was a better opportunity to educate the kids on the history of racism than to hand down a punishment that could affect the rest of their lives.

Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda. Courtesy Loudoun County, VA.

A judge signed off on her plan to have each of the teens choose one book a month off a list of 35 titles for a year, and then write an essay about what they read. The works included classics like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," as well as more contemporary titles including Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner."

The "sentence" also included a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the Museum of American History's exhibit on Japanese-American internment camps.

And the Judge's decision appears to have worked. According to the BBC, more than two years later, none of the defendants have reoffended, and all are still in school. The teens' lawyers say the sentence had had its "intended effect."

The BBC published part of one of the teen's final essay:

"I learned a lot from writing this paper about how things can have an impact on people - I had no idea about how in-depth the darkest parts of human history go. I remember sitting in history class and learning about this kind of stuff in like two days and then moving on the next week and I thought that was that. I never really looked deep into what went on because a bigger part of me really didn't want to know the horrors. Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter their race or religion or sexual orientation. I will do my best to see to it that I am never this ignorant again."

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