In Virginia, there’s a deserted one room schoolhouse, built in 1887.
In the era of racial segregation it was known as the Ashburn Colored Schoolhouse and taught 50 children, ages five to twelve,
One day in 2016, it was vandalised with crude graffiti, including swastikas.
The deputy attorney, Alejandra Rueda, inspected the damage.
She said it didn’t feel like the Ku Klux Klan or a white supremacy hate group.
Sure it had swastikas and the words WHITE POWER, but it also had the words BROWN POWER plus drawings of penises, breasts, and dinosaurs.
She said it felt like “some dumb kids” who didn’t even know what a swastika was.
And sure enough she was right, 5 teenagers were arrested.
They were 16-17 year-old boys, two white and three ethnic-minority.
So she didn’t demand punishment, she got the court to sentence them to read.
She was sure they didn’t know what they were doing, so she made them learn.
She had them read a book, and write a review on it, every month for a year.
She gave them a choice of 35 books to pick twelve from.
Amongst the books were: The Color Purple – Alice Walker. Exodus – Leon Uris. Night – Elie Wiesel. The Crucible – Arthur Miller. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou. The Bluest Eyes – Toni Morrison. Black Boy – Richard Wright. The Banality of Evil – Hannah Arendt. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang. The Help – Kathryn Stockett.
They had to write a book-report on each book, plus an essay on what they’d learned.
As she says, it wasn’t a lenient sentence:
“These kids had no previous record so there was no way they were going to get a custodial sentence at a penitentiary.
The sentence I gave was harder than they would normally have received.
Normally it would just be probation, which would mean checking in with a probation officer once a month. Here they had to write 12 assignments and a 3,500 word essay on racial hatred and symbols in the context of what they’d done – it was a lot of work.
But we have to educate our kids out of their ignorance and, with children, our focus has to be on rehabilitation and not retribution if we want results.”
Here’s an excerpt from an essay one of the kids wrote:
“Before, I thought a swastika was just a symbol and it didn’t mean much to me. I had no idea how in-depth the darkest parts of human history go. I remember sitting in history class and learning about this kind of stuff in like two days, and then moving on the next week and I thought that was that. I feel especially awful after writing this paper about how I made anybody feel bad. I will do my best to see that I am never this ignorant again.”
None of the boys have reoffended and they have all gone on to higher education.
Alejandra Rueda says the boys “Just needed to open their eyes to the awful things people have done in the name of gender, race, and religion. Books are the best way to combat that.”
She learned the importance of reading, growing up in Mexico from her mother, who was a school librarian.
She learned that imparting information through well written books worked really well.
It’s a great lesson for us in how good communication works better than nagging.
It’s a great lesson for all of us in the communication business.
As Walt Disney said, “We have to entertain in order to educate, because the other way round doesn’t work.”