After Teens Defaced Historic Black Schoolhouse, Latina Attorney Drew Up a Life-Changing Punishment

Lead Photo: During an October community event, a group worked to cover up the graffiti at The Ashburn Colored School. Photo: Sharon Knipmeyer/Loudoun School for the Gifted
During an October community event, a group worked to cover up the graffiti at The Ashburn Colored School. Photo: Sharon Knipmeyer/Loudoun School for the Gifted
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In Virginia, an act of vandalism may typically result in a small fine or community service. However, in Ashburn, Virginia, a racially motivated act of vandalism is turning into a learning experience that will hopefully yield longer-lasting effects. In September, five teenage boys – two of whom are white and three of whom are minorities – graffitied swastikas, graphic imagery, and the words “brown power” and “white power” onto Ashburn Colored School, a historic black schoolhouse. The action sent shockwaves through the community.

“It was jut profoundly disappointing,” Deep Sran, the founder of Loundoun School for the Gifted, a private school that owns the schoolhouse, told the New York Times. “Profoundly disappointing because this building is evidence of the worst story in American history: swastikas, white power. I teach history, and at some point you think the story will end.”

Police arrested the boys, who all entered a guilty plea, in October. At last week’s trial, Judge Avelina Jacob announced a rather unconventional ruling: for the next 12 months, they have to read a book a month that addresses racism, anti-Semitism, and other issues that might broaden their worldview. They’ll also have to write book reports, turn in an essay on how “white power” and swastikas are damaging to African-American communities, and visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington and an exhibit about Japanese-American internment camps at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Though Jacob doled out the decision, it was Mexican-born deputy commonwealth attorney Alejandra Rueda who masterminded it.

Rueda, whose librarian mother gave her Mila 18 and Exodus to learn more about the Holocaust and Israel, knows firsthand the transformative powers of books. “It occurred to me that the way these kids are going to learn about this stuff is if they read about it, more than anything,” she said about the 16- and 17-year-old students. “Yes, they could walk into court and plead guilty and get put on probation and do some community service, but it wasn’t really going to bring the message home. I just thought maybe if they read these books, it will make an impression on them, and they will stand up for people who are being oppressed. Given how fractured our country is right now, the more people who are open minded, the better our country will be.”

Rueda and Sran worked together to come up with a list of books. Check them out below:

1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
2. Native Son by Richard Wright
3. Exodus by Leon Uris
4. Mitla 18 by Leon Uris
5. Trinity by Leon Uris
6. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
7. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
8. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
9. Night by Elie Wiesel
10. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
11. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
12. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
13. Things Falls Apart by Chinua Achebe
14. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
15. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
16. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
17. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
18. Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
19. Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle
20. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
21. A Hope In The Unseen by Ron Suskind
22. Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
23. Black Boy by Richard Wright
24. The Beautiful Struggle by Ta Nehisi Coats
25. The Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
26. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
27. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
28. The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
29. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
30. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
31. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
32. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Patton
33. Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton
34. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
35. Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides