Vandals Ordered to Read

Sure, we’ve all had required reading in school, but have you ever heard of a judge handing down a sentence to read? Well, that’s exactly what happened last year in Loudon County, Virginia.

Last fall in Ashburn, VA (northwest of Washington, D.C.), five teens spray painted swastikas, the words “WHITE POWER”, and vulgar images on the walls of the Ashburn Colored School. Black students attended school there during the era of segregation. The Loudon School for the Gifted currently owns the site, and students from that school have been restoring the historic building.

One of the teens guilty of vandalism left the Loudon School for the Gifted on “unpleasant” terms, and three of them were minorities themselves. None of the teens had a prior record with the law. Considering these facts, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Rueda decided the boys acted out of teenage naiveté moreso than racial hatred, so she recommended an unusual sentence, one intended to educate the boys about hate speech and the effect of their actions on the community.

When the boys pleaded guilty, they were given a sentence that included reading several books by black, Jewish, and Afghan authors, visiting the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and writing a report on hate speech. Rueda compiled a list of books based on their literary significance and content regarding race, religion, and discrimination.  The list included:

  • Night
  • The Color Purple
  • My Name is Asher Lev
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Black Boy
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns
  • Cry the Beloved Country
  • The Bluest Eye

I love that Rueda focused on making this a learning opportunity for the teens. Since none had previous issues with the law, and their actions didn’t cause physical pain to anyone, it seems appropriate to focus on education over punishment. Exposing the teens to other opinions and experiences hopefully did more to influence their future behavior than community service alone. Especially now, in an era when hateful speech seems more prominent in the media, we need do a better job of understanding the people we share our communities with, and reading books about them is a good place to start.

With books, the teens experienced new ideas and perspectives in a non-threatening way. I hope they wrote papers or discussed the books with someone not only for accountability but also to help them process and absorb the ideas in the novels. Judging from the other terms of the sentence, including a research paper on hate speech, I bet they did. A good follow up might have been to meet with real people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures for a facilitated discussion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any follow up news stories on the case; I would love to know how these teens responded to their sentence.

When I first heard about this story, I had concern that reading used for punishment might turn teens off of books. Hopefully, the emphasis was placed on education and understanding and the books were interesting enough to the teens to keep them engaged. Again, the focus on learning is one we can all benefit from. The Washington Post banner that hovered over the news story seemed especially significant; it said, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Hate speech and all of its iterations is a language of darkness. We must always champion understanding and promote the language of light, even if that means utilizing unusual methods to do so.

If you want to learn more about this interesting case, read

The Washington Post

The New York Times

Thanks also to my friend Nan for sharing this story.  🙂

Do you think reading fiction is a useful tool for understanding? Should it be used more often for cases like this?

Thanks for getting nerdy with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julia Tomiak

I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and Wordsmithstudio.org.

4 Comments

  1. I love the focus on education instead of punishment. I’d like to believe that reading these books had some impact on the teens, and I think that fiction could be an effective vehicle for change. I’ve only read half of those books – I may have to add a few to my reading list.

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