Five teenagers are facing an unconventional punishment after vandalizing a historic African-American schoolhouse in Virginia with swastikas. Last October, the group spray-painted the swastikas, along with the words “white power” and other symbols.
They pled guilty last week, but instead of facing jail time, the teens are required to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum and write a series of book reports about books authored by black, Jewish and Afghan writers.
Prosecutor Alex Rueda told NPR in an interview on Feb. 5, 2017 that the group who vandalized the building didn’t seem to know its significance. “What I can tell you about them is that three of them were minorities. Two of them were white. But none of them knew that it was a school,” Rueda said. “None of them knew that it was a historic property. They all thought it was just this abandoned shed.”
Rueda explained that the kids didn’t seem to have an understanding of the significance of their actions until it was reported in the newspaper and based on the larger community’s response. “What they have to do is write a book report once a month,” Rueda said.
The reading list includes, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Native Son by Richard Wright, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. When asked about her reason for such a sentence, rather than jail time — especially given the hateful messages in their vandalism — Rueda said, “they are juveniles, and the purpose of juvenile court, which is the court that they are in, No. 1, is rehabilitation.”
She continued, “You really have to understand that the juvenile brain is very different than the adult brain. And juveniles don’t understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions.”
“So I wanted them to read about oppression all over the world. And, I mean, I want them to understand that this can happen anywhere and that these kinds of symbols can be very, very hurtful.”