Top: Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor

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In September 2016, an old style home in Virginia, used for educating black college students in the course of 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 Legal professional Alejandra Rueda heard in regards to the racist and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled throughout the varsity home in Ashburn, Loudoun County, Virginia, she suspected the culprits had been youngsters.

“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 photographs of dinosaurs, girls’s breasts and penises. And I believed, ‘This does not appear to be the work of refined KKK individuals out to intimidate – it seems to be extra just like the work of dumb youngsters.'”

Her instinct proved right. 5 youngsters aged 16 and 17 had 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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The youngsters had been unaware of the importance of the constructing that they had defaced. It was the Ashburn Colored Faculty, an historic constructing that had been utilized by black youngsters throughout segregation in Northern Virginia. The prosecutor believes the youngsters had been simply kicking out towards authority after one in all them had been expelled from his college, however she understands why the city was so shocked by the crime.

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


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

The titles included Alice Walker’s The Shade Purple, My title Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, I Know Why the Caged Chook 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 in regards to the Holocaust, racial hatred and the implications of holding prejudice based mostly 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 baby

“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 checklist and I additionally added classics everybody ought to know, like To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The decide was extensively praised for attempting to coach 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 reality, whereas not one of the offenders was black, Alejandra Rueda says three had been from ethnic minorities.


Twelve of the 35 books

  • Issues Fall Aside – China Achebe
  • I Know Why the Caged Chook 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 Title is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok
  • Exodus – Leon Uris
  • The Shade Purple – Alice Walker
  • Evening – Elie Wiesel

“And the sentence was on no account lenient,” she argues.

“These youngsters had no prior report so there was no approach they had 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 perhaps just a few hours of group service and writing a letter to apologize. Right here they needed to write 12 assignments and a 3,500-word essay on racial hatred and symbols within the context of what they’d accomplished… It was loads 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 obligatory 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’ attorneys say their households had been “embarrassed” by their “silly prank” and that the sentence had had its “supposed 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 offer an interview about their expertise, however one agreed that the conclusion of his closing essay might be shared:

I realized loads from penning this paper about how issues can have an effect on individuals – I had no thought about how in-depth the darkest elements of human historical past go. I bear in mind sitting in historical past class and studying about this type of stuff in like two days after which shifting on the following week and I believed 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 wish to know the horrors.

I believed a swastika was only a image and it did not actually imply a lot – not any extra. I used to be mistaken and it meant loads to people who find themselves affected by them. It jogs my memory of the worst issues – shedding relations and pals, of the ache of torture, psychological and bodily, amongst that it reminds them how hateful individuals will be and the way the world will 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 approach. I really feel particularly terrible after penning this paper about how I made anyone really feel dangerous. All people ought to be handled with equality, regardless of their race or faith or sexual orientation. I’ll do my finest 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, instantly breaks down in tears.

“It makes me cry,” she tells me. “But it surely makes me really feel nice as a result of he acquired 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 youngsters need to be in detention as a result of they’re harmful to society or to themselves however for probably the most half, detention will be very traumatic and that’s not the aim of the felony justice system in terms of youngsters.”

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

In reality, 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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Absolutely restored, as a part of a mission by college students at a neighborhood personal college, 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 baby. He was additionally sentenced to a studying checklist, though the titles chosen had been extra acceptable for his age group.

“Now we have to coach youngsters out of ignorance,” says Alejandra Rueda. “And with youngsters, our focus must be on rehabilitation and never retribution if we would like outcomes.”

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