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In September 2016, an old-fashioned home in Virginia, used for educating black college students throughout 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 have been youngsters.

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

Her instinct proved appropriate. 5 youngsters aged 16 and 17 have been arrested for the crime and pleaded responsible to 1 depend of destruction of personal property and one depend of illegal entry.

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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 youngsters throughout segregation in Northern Virginia. The prosecutor believes the youngsters have 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 you recognize, a number of the youngsters did not even know what a swastika meant. So I noticed a studying alternative. With youngsters you may both punish or you may rehabilitate and these have been youngsters with no prior file and I assumed again to what taught me once I was their age, what opened my eyes to different cultures and religions… and it was studying.”

Discover out extra

You’ll be able to hear Emma Jane Kirby’s report on the World at One, on BBC Radio four, at 13:00 on Tuesday 16 April

Catch up later on-line, or obtain the podcast

The choose 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 thought 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 yr and to write down an project 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 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 childPicture copyright
Alejandra Rueda

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Alejandra Rueda (proper) studying along 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 training 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 listing and I additionally added classics everybody ought to know, like To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The choose was extensively praised for attempting to coach the adolescents out of their offending behaviour, however some members of the black group wrote letters of criticism to native and nationwide newspapers arguing that youngsters of color would by no means have been handled so leniently. In actual fact, 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 – Chinua 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 Title 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 youngsters had no prior file so there was no manner 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 perhaps a couple of hours of group service and writing a letter to express regret. 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 accomplished… It was a whole 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 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 training. The youngsters’ attorneys say their households have been “embarrassed” by their “silly prank” and that the sentence had had its “supposed impact”.

Volunteers painted over the graffiti nine days laterPicture copyright
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Volunteers painted over the graffiti 9 days later

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

I discovered lots from scripting this paper about how issues can have an effect on folks – 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 regarded deep into what went on as a result of an even 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 lots to people who find themselves affected by them. It jogs my memory of the worst issues – shedding relations and buddies, of the ache of torture, psychological and bodily, amongst that it reminds them how hateful folks could be and the way the world could be merciless and unfair. Swastikas are additionally a reminder of oppression, not being heard and being saved 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 manner. I really feel particularly terrible after scripting this paper about how I made anyone really feel unhealthy. All people ought to be handled with equality, irrespective 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, all of a sudden breaks down in tears.

“It makes me cry,” she tells me. “Nevertheless it makes me really feel nice as a result of he bought 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 should be in detention as a result of they’re harmful to society or to themselves however for probably the most half, detention could be very traumatic and that’s not the aim of the prison justice system on the subject 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 needed to be as artistic as potential with this case.”

In actual fact, Loudoun County has spent the previous yr overhauling its juvenile justice system.

Fully restored, the school was opened to the public a year laterPicture copyright
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Totally restored, as a part of a mission by college students at an area non-public 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 listing, though the titles chosen have been extra acceptable for his age group.

“We’ve got to coach youngsters out of ignorance,” says Alejandra Rueda. “And with youngsters, our focus needs to be on rehabilitation and never retribution if we wish outcomes.”

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