Teens ordered to read books to educate them on diversity and racism after defacing black schoolhouse
Last year, five Virginia teenagers vandalized the side of a historic black schoolhouse with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, and the prosecutor requested an unusual punishment for their crime. The judge agreed and the teens were ordered to read one book every month for 12 months and then write a report about each. The 35 books they could choose from address divisive and tragic periods in history, and give perspective on marginalized groups, empathy, struggle, and perseverance.
Ashburn Colored School, a 19th-century schoolhouse used by black children during the period of segregation in Virginia was the target of the graffiti, which included swastikas, sexual images and the phrases “brown power” and “white power.” The teens, 16 and 17-years-old, pled guilty in October to one count of destruction of private property and one count of unlawful entry.
Alejandra Rueda, the deputy commonwealth attorney who came up with the idea, told the New York Times, “It occurred to me that the way these kids are going to learn about this stuff is if they read about it, more than anything. Yes, they could walk into court and plead guilty and get put on probation and do some community service, but it wasn’t really going to bring the message home.” She added, “I just thought maybe if they read these books, it will make an impression on them, and they will stand up for people who are being oppressed.”
The teens were also ordered to visit a Holocaust museum as well as Smithsonian’s Museum of American History’s exhibit which depicts camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned. The teens will also be required to write a paper on what the swastikas symbolizes and how “white power” messages impact African-Americans.
Books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Native Son” by Richard Wright appear on the list. The written word offers a perspective and elicits emotion unable to be captured in any other form. These books should be required reading for every individual.
Deep Sran, the founder of the private school that owns the Ashburn Colored School said of the vandalism, “It was just profoundly disappointing. Profoundly disappointing because this building is evidence of the worst story in American history: swastikas, white power. I teach history, and at some point you think the story will end.”
The commonwealth attorney’s office released a statement announcing the decision last week, that explains why they thought education was the proper disciplinary route: “‘It became very apparent to us as we reviewed the facts, and their statements to detectives, that these kids truly did not appreciate the significance or the meaning of what they were drawing on the building. It also became obvious to us that their motivations had nothing to do with bigotry or hatred toward any class of people,’ said Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman. Of the five youths, three are of a minority class. The drawings on the building consisted of swastikas, dinosaurs, vulgar sexual images and words such as ‘brown power’ and ‘white power.'”
“Because of this, we are seizing the opportunity to treat this as an educational experience for these young men so they may better appreciate the significance of their actions and the impact this type of behavior has on communities and has had throughout history.”