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In September 2016, an old-fashioned home in Virginia, used for instructing black college students through the period of segregation, was sprayed with offensive graffiti. The culprits got an uncommon sentence – studying. Two-and-a-half years later, the BBC’s Emma Jane Kirby asks whether or not the punishment labored.

From the second Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Lawyer Alejandra Rueda heard concerning the racist and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled throughout the college home in Ashburn, Loudoun County, Virginia, she suspected the culprits have been kids.

“The graffiti was racially charged – that they had spray-painted swastikas and phrases like ‘White Energy’ and ‘Brown Energy’,” she recollects. “However there have been additionally pictures of dinosaurs, ladies’s breasts and penises. And I assumed, ‘This does not appear like the work of refined KKK individuals out to intimidate – it appears to be like extra just like the work of dumb youngsters.'”

Her instinct proved appropriate. 5 kids aged 16 and 17 have been arrested for the crime and pleaded responsible to at least one depend of destruction of personal property and one depend of illegal entry.

The Ashburn Colored School defaced with graffiti

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Framers Tasks

The youngsters have been unaware of the importance of the constructing that they had defaced. It was the Ashburn Colored College, an historic constructing that had been utilized by black kids throughout segregation in Northern Virginia. The prosecutor believes the kids have been simply kicking out towards authority after certainly one of them had been expelled from his faculty, however she understands why the city was so shocked by the crime.

“The group blew up. Understandably. However you already know, a few of the children did not even know what a swastika meant. So I noticed a studying alternative. With kids you’ll be able to both punish or you’ll be able to rehabilitate and these have been children with no prior document and I assumed again to what taught me after I was their age, what opened my eyes to different cultures and religions… and it was studying.”


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The choose within the case endorsed the prosecutor’s order – that the youngsters needs to be handed down a studying sentence (or “disposition” as a sentence is understood in juvenile circumstances). Alejandra Rueda drew up an inventory of 35 books and ordered the offenders to decide on one title a month for a 12 months and to jot down an task on every of the 12 books they selected.

The titles included Alice Walker’s The Shade Purple, My identify Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, I Know Why the Caged Fowl Sings by Maya Angelou, Cry The Beloved Nation by Alan Paton and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

Having grown up in Mexico in a bilingual literary household – her mom was a college librarian – Alejandra Rueda says she owes her personal cultural and racial consciousness to sure books her mom prescribed. Her mom was decided her daughters ought to know concerning the Holocaust, racial hatred and the implications of holding prejudice primarily based on race, faith or ethnicity.

Alejandra Rueda (right) reading with her mother and sister as a child

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Alejandra Rueda

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Alejandra Rueda (proper) studying together with her mom and sister as a toddler

“I had no thought about apartheid in South Africa till I learn Alan Paton and that simply blew my thoughts – I had had no schooling in any respect about apartheid,” she says. “Likewise, I knew nothing about Israel till I learn Exodus by Leon Uris. So these books needed to go on my studying record and I additionally added classics everybody ought to know, like To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The choose was extensively praised for making an attempt to teach the adolescents out of their offending behaviour, however some members of the black group wrote letters of grievance to native and nationwide newspapers arguing that youngsters of color would by no means have been handled so leniently. In truth, whereas not one of the offenders was black, Alejandra Rueda says three have been from ethnic minorities.


Twelve of the 35 books

  • Issues Fall Aside – China Achebe
  • I Know Why the Caged Fowl Sings – Maya Angelou
  • The Tortilla Curtain – T C Boyle
  • The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup
  • The Crucible – Arthur Miller
  • Cry the Beloved Nation – Alan Paton
  • My Identify is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok
  • Exodus – Leon Uris
  • The Shade Purple – Alice Walker
  • Night time – Elie Wiesel

“And the sentence was under no circumstances lenient,” she argues.

“These children had no prior document so there was no method they have been going to get a custodial sentence at a penitentiary.

“The sentence I gave was harsher than what they’d usually have acquired. Usually it will simply be probation which might imply checking in with a probation officer as soon as a month and possibly a couple of hours of group service and writing a letter to make an apology. Right here they needed to write 12 assignments and a three,500-word essay on racial hatred and symbols within the context of what they’d executed… It was quite a lot of work.”

Quotebox: It worked - and custodial sentences don't work

All 5 of the youngsters efficiently accomplished their studying and written assignments together with necessary visits to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Museum of American Historical past’s exhibit on Japanese-American internment camps within the US.

Two years later, none has reoffended, and all are nonetheless in schooling. The youngsters’ legal professionals say their households have been “embarrassed” by their “silly prank” and that the sentence had had its “meant impact”.

Volunteers painted over the graffiti nine days later

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Volunteers painted over the graffiti 9 days later

Not one of the offenders was prepared to provide an interview about their expertise, however one agreed that the conclusion of his ultimate essay may very well be shared:

I realized rather a lot from scripting this paper about how issues can have an effect on individuals – I had no thought about how in-depth the darkest components of human historical past go. I keep in mind sitting in historical past class and studying about this sort of stuff in like two days after which transferring on the following week and I assumed that was that. I by no means actually seemed deep into what went on as a result of a much bigger a part of me actually did not need to know the horrors.

I assumed a swastika was only a image and it did not actually imply a lot – not any extra. I used to be unsuitable and it meant rather a lot to people who find themselves affected by them. It jogs my memory of the worst issues – shedding relations and associates, of the ache of torture, psychological and bodily, amongst that it reminds them how hateful individuals might be and the way the world might be merciless and unfair. Swastikas are additionally a reminder of oppression, not being heard and being stored down on the bottom. Swastikas are additionally an indication of white energy, that their race is above all else, which isn’t the case.

Individuals mustn’t really feel lower than what they’re and no person ought to make them really feel that method. I really feel particularly terrible after scripting this paper about how I made anyone really feel unhealthy. Everyone needs to be handled with equality, regardless of their race or faith or sexual orientation. I’ll do my greatest to see to it that I’m by no means this ignorant once more.

When she reaches the ultimate sentence, Alejandra Rueda, who has been studying it out to me, abruptly breaks down in tears.

“It makes me cry,” she tells me. “Nevertheless it makes me really feel nice as a result of he obtained it! It labored!”

She wipes her eyes on a handkerchief.

Alejandra Rueda

“It labored,” she says once more, emphatically. “And custodial sentences do not work. OK, some children should be in detention as a result of they’re harmful to society or to themselves however for probably the most half, detention might be very traumatic and that’s not the aim of the prison justice system on the subject of kids.”

She blows her nostril. “Look, I do know I do not sound like a prosecutor right here however that’s not what I intention to do with kids which is why I wished to be as inventive as doable with this case.”

In truth, Loudoun County has spent the previous 12 months overhauling its juvenile justice system.

Fully restored, the school was opened to the public a year later

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Totally restored, as a part of a venture by college students at a neighborhood personal faculty, the constructing was opened to the general public in 2017

Alejandra Rueda sits on one of many “diversion committees” and hopes that studying and literacy will now be routinely used within the courts of Loudoun County. Her “studying disposition” has already been utilized in one other case when a 13-year-old boy was discovered responsible of threatening behaviour and racially insulting a black little one. He was additionally sentenced to a studying record, though the titles chosen have been extra acceptable for his age group.

“We’ve to teach children out of ignorance,” says Alejandra Rueda. “And with kids, our focus must be on rehabilitation and never retribution if we wish outcomes.”

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