Crime and unusual punishment
Students responsible for vandalizing historic school receive unique sentence
Last year, five high school students vandalized the Ashburn Colored School, a historic black school once used in Loudon County, Virginia that dates back to the days of the segregated South, by spray-painting racist and anti-Semitic language on the school’s walls.
At the beginning of February 2017, the students pleaded guilty and received an unorthodox sentence suggested by a prosecutor and endorsed by the judge.
According to The New York Times, the sentence said they must “read one book each month for the next 12 months and write a report about it.”
Additionally, they must visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s exhibit on Japanese-American internment camps, and write a paper that covers ‘white power’ and symbols that support it, such as the swastika, and how they impact minority communities.
They also had to listen to a recorded interview with a woman who had attended the Ashburn Colored School as a young girl.
Touching on topics of diversity, the 35 books the teenagers can choose from include Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” both about growing up in the Jim Crow-era South.
Also on the list are “Night” by Elie Wiesel, about the Holocaust, and “My Name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok, about a boy growing up in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn.
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, about growing up in Afghanistan and “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, about an Iranian professor of Western literature teaching in Iran’s capital are other options the teens could read.
“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,” Alejandra Rueda, the prosecutor who suggested the sentence, said to the Times.
By requiring the teens to read these books that will ask them to view the world from another person’s point of view, the prosecutor and judge made a decision that will have a greater impact on the lives of the five teens than a normal sentence of community service or jail time would have.
Sentencing the students to community service might help free Loudon County’s roadsides from litter, but it won’t address the deep issues that caused the teens to vandalize the schoolhouse in the first place.
Reading and learning about other cultures and religions will help the students empathize with the characters they read about and hopefully, by extension, people who are different from them.
After stepping into the shoes of a girl living in the Jim Crow South or a Jewish boy in a concentration camp, the teenagers will likely think twice before spray-painting racist and anti-Semitic slurs on a black schoolhouse again.
After finally meeting the reclusive Boo Radley at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the novel’s young protagonist Scout Finch told her father, “Atticus, he was real nice.”
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them,” her father replied.
It is this sentiment expressed in the exchange between Scout and Atticus that the judge hopes to instill in the teens.
In a nation where people desecrate Jewish cemeteries and stereotype others based on the color of their skin, it is a sentiment that every American could do well to internalize.