After admitting they had spray-painted swastikas and messages of “white power” and “brown power” on a school building, five Virginia teenagers have been sentenced to, among other instructional experiences, read and write reports about one book per month for a year.
The students — two are white, three are minorities, all are male — received their sentence the first week of February and will be reevaluated in January 2018.
This punishment is an effective way to make the teenagers understand what they’ve done.
The building they defaced is the Ashburn Colored School, which black students attended in observance of segregated public education until 1959.
The young men may choose their books from a list of thirty-five books that were selected for their potential to teach the students the impact of their actions by connecting them to a broader cultural context.
Though unusual, the sentence does align with the National Juvenile Defender Center’s definition of a kind of sentence called a disposition, which addresses, beyond simple punishment, the rehabilitation of juveniles and treatment of whatever issues led to their delinquency.
The idea for the sentence originally came from Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda, who said of her proposal that “the way these kids are going to learn about this stuff is if they read about it, more than anything.”
Rueda, who has 19 years of experience as an attorney, said she believed the usual sentence of probation and community service “wasn’t really going to bring the message home.” In order to truly address the issues of ignorance and intolerance, the students needed direct exposure to the history of the discrimination they were perpetuating.
While racism is obviously one of the biggest problems in American society, it’s counterproductive to imagine a single, perfect approach that will eradicate racial inequality.
Nevertheless, the enormity and complexity of American racism demand we, the people, make an honest attempt to form a more perfect union. Enabling our children to build a better future by educating them about the past is an essential task.
Reading is a demonstrably effective tool for promoting the kind of compassion and acceptance required for peace in a society as diverse as ours.
We can’t have students who, at age 16, remain unaware of the symbolism of a swastika, as one of the Virginia teens claimed to be, and we also need more productive methods than incarceration for addressing the issue of crimes such as these that are symptomatic of educational failure.
A solution such as Rueda’s incorporates the kinds of intensive and instructive elements necessary to affect real change.
While we shouldn’t overlook the severity of destructive decisions, our focus must be on creating a better future. If we’re serious about changing the way people think about race in this country, literature can help.