Teenagers Get Unusual Punishment For Spray-Painting Swastikas

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Five teenagers who vandalized an historic African-American schoolhouse received an unusual punishment this week. The teenagers spray-painted swastikas, the words white power and lewd symbols on the building last October.

This week, they pled guilty. But instead of ordering jail time, the judge is requiring them to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum and read books written by black, Jewish and Afghan authors and write essays about them.

Alex Rueda is the deputy commonwealth's attorney for Loudoun County, Va., and she came up with this sentence. She joins us now to tell us more about it. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALEX RUEDA: My pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about these teenagers. What do we know about them? And what motivated them to do this?

ALEX RUEDA: 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. None of them knew that it was a historic property. They all thought it was just this abandoned shed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us what you suggested to the judge that these kids had to do.

ALEX RUEDA: Well, I don't think they appreciated the significance of what they had done until it blew up in the newspaper and in the community at large. So what they have to do is write a book report once a month. And I gave them a reading list of books that were about race and gender and religion and war. I chose "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, "Native Son" by Richard Wright, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini. That's sort of where the reading list goes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it's a powerful reading list. So how did you come up with it?

ALEX RUEDA: My mother was a librarian, and she gave me lots of wonderful books to read as I was growing up. Some of these I read in college. For example, "Cry, the Beloved Country" was part of my assigned reading list when I was taking a class on apartheid in college. And I also have girlfriends who are educators, and I reached out to some of them when I was putting the list together and just asked them, you know, I have this case coming up. And this is the sort of the sentence that I'm thinking of coming up with. And do you have any suggestions?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people would say hate speech is still hate speech. People should be punished, no matter if it was children who don't know better.

ALEX RUEDA: You're absolutely right. But they are juveniles, and the purpose of juvenile court, which is the court that they are in, No. 1, is rehabilitation. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say it's a teachable moment. What did you want them to learn?

ALEX RUEDA: I wanted them to learn about race and religion and gender and war. I mean, the books cover a whole gamut of topics. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the parents' reaction?

ALEX RUEDA: The attorneys have told me that the parents were mortified. They took immediate actions within the home to, you know, punish their kids in terms of taking away cell phones, taking away privileges, things of that nature. One set of parents was extremely proactive and actually took their child to the Holocaust museum before I ever came up with this sentence. And another set of parents already had their kids doing community service in anticipation of the court date. And so I'm pretty confident that because of that, they'll be successful doing all of the things that have been required of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alex Rueda is the deputy commonwealth's attorney for Loudoun County, Va.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ALEX RUEDA: It's my pleasure. Thank you for interviewing me today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TADEUSZ STRUGALA'S "MOVING TO THE GHETTO OCT. 31, 1940"

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