Last year, we reported the news that five teenage vandals, who defaced an historic black schoolhouse with the phrases “white power”, “black power”, and swastikas, were sentenced by Judge Avelina Jacob to read books that would make them realise the error of their ways and then write reports on them. The children were given a list of relevant books and had to select a few each. The books covered some of the most divisive periods of history and included topics such as the Holocaust and slavery in the US.
A year has gone by since the sentence was passed and the teenagers have read their books and handed in their reports. Alejandra Rueda, a deputy commonwealth attorney who suggested the sentence, said “I hope that they learned the lesson that I hoped that they would learn, which was tolerance.” So have they?
The identities of the vandals cannot be revealed due to their age but it has been stated that they were between the ages of 16 and 17 and that two were white, and three were nonwhite. One of the teenagers agreed to be interviewed by the New York Times and shared the list of books he read. They included The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Night by Elie Wiesel and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The teen wrote that, in particular, both 12 Years a Slave and Night affected him deeply. An excerpt from the report he handed in revealed that, at the time of the crime, he didn’t fully understand the significance of the swastika. “Not anymore,” he wrote, “I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair.”
He states that he now understands the the swastika is a symbol of oppression and “white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case.” The report went on to state that, while he had been taught this period of history, it only lasted a few days. “I had no idea about how in depth the darkest parts of human history go,” he wrote. He added that he feels “especially awful” that he upset anyone.
“Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” his essay read. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”
Since this sentence was passed, it has been used again in a case when a 14-year-old girl threatened a black student with a noose, said Mrs Rueda. She collected 36 books recommended by librarians, including A Wreath of Emmett Till which is a poetry book about a young black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. When asked her opinion, author Marilyn Nelson said she was concerned that the punishment might not have the desired effect. “I can’t say I’m pleased to know that my work is being inflicted as a punishment. Will kids punished by being made to read poetry ever read poetry again?”
Other authors expressed hope that the message of their stories might change the views of young offenders. T.C. Boyle, who wrote The Tortilla Curtain is told from four said the teenager “will be able to live inside the skin of someone unfamiliar to him, whether that be the Mexican immigrant couple or the Anglo couple living in a gated community, and that the experience will enrich his social perspective.”
The Kite Runner‘s author, Khaled Hosseini, said: “Engaging with characters that differ from us in race, religion or culture, helps us feel our immutable connections as a species. Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading ‘The Kite Runner’ was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”
Following the vandal of the historic schoolhouse, the site underwent a renovation organized by students from the Loudoun School for the Gifted, a private high school that owns it. They helped raise money and work teams volunteered. The little schoolhouse has now opened as a museum.
The sentence has proved to be a controversial one. Some have supported it, stating that it will do more to educate the vandals than community service, while others consider the punishment to be too light. Some have also questioned whether reading should be given out as a punishment.
Kamran Fareedi, 17, a senior at Loudoun, was helping on the renovation before the vandalism. He believes the sentence “reeks of pampering and no consequences.”
“When I heard that the punishment was that they were going to have to do homework assignments, I was very disappointed. All over the country we have a giant mass incarceration problem. And particularly African Americans do the slightest thing, their interaction with the criminal justice system is way more harsh. When people of color make mistakes they don’t get the chance to start over.”
He also felt that the fact three of the youths were minorities also showed the economic privilege of young people in the Ashburn area. “It is astonishing that they are that disconnected from the serious implications of their history and their heritage and people of their background today in non-privileged areas,” he said.
Shailee Sran, a 16-year-old student at the school, said she hoped To Kill a Mockingbird showed the vandal the value of standing up for what’s right.
“I actually thought the punishment made sense,” she said. “I feel like if they don’t understand what they did wrong it is not helping the problem. It is just teaching them not to get caught.”
“It is like what we were doing in trying to restore the schoolhouse,” Ms. Sran said. “We are trying to remember and trying to show people what happened and what is still happening. This shouldn’t be forgotten.”
The youths also had to visit museums and relevant documentaries and speeches were made available to them.
The commonwealth attorney, Ms. Rueda, said she sees the sentence as an opportunity to expand their minds. “Is it going to change their perspective on swastikas if you put them in the juvenile center and locked them up?”