Teen vandals' sentence: to read and write about literature
April 18, 2019 10:27 AM   Subscribe

"The community blew up. Understandably. But you know, some of the kids didn't even know what a swastika meant. So I saw a learning opportunity. With children you can either punish or you can rehabilitate and these were kids with no prior record and I thought back to what taught me when I was their age, what opened my eyes to other cultures and religions… and it was reading." Two years later, prosecutor Alejandra Rueda reflects on the "reading disposition" she assigned to teens who painted racist and anti-Semitic graffiti on the Ashburn Colored School, a historically significant building in Virginia (now undergoing restoration and turned into a museum). The linked BBC article includes excerpts from a final essay by one of the teens.

From the official statement by the Commonwealth's attorney (contains the full book list):
During their probationary period, the five will each be required to visit the United States Holocaust Museum and “The Day of Remembrance: The 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066” exhibit [regarding America's WWII Japanese internment camps] at the American History Museum. They will also be required to write one book report per month for the next twelve months from an approved list provided to them (see attached). None of the reports may be substituted for a regular school assignment. Books were chosen based on their literary significance and/or their subject matter content surrounding race, religion and discrimination.

The teens will also be required to write a research paper explaining the message that swastikas and white power messages on African American schools or houses of worship send to the African American community as well as the broader community, which includes other minority groups. The research paper must reference and include the history of the KKK lynchings, the Nazi “final solution,” the Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education court decisions.

Finally, each teen must listen to a recorded interview of Ms. Yvonne Neal, describing her experiences at the Ashburn Colored School. Ms. Neal attended the Ashburn Colored School from 1938 until 1945.
Not everyone was happy about the sentence. Poet Marilyn Nelson, whose book A Wreath for Emmett Till was originally on the book list, said she was not pleased that her poems were being assigned as punishment, and wondered if those forced to read poetry would ever choose to read it again. Similarly, a local English teacher did not like the idea of associating reading with punishment. A student who had been working on the school restoration when it was defaced felt the consequences were too lenient when compared to the severe sentences given to black teenagers in similar circumstances (according to the attorney's office statement, two of the teens sentenced in the case were white; three were of an unspecified "minority class" but not black).

However, Rueda still feels the sentence was not lenient. From the BBC link:
"These kids had no prior record so there was no way they were going to get a custodial sentence at a penitentiary.

"The sentence I gave was harsher than what they would normally have received. Normally it would just be probation which would mean checking in with a probation officer once a month and maybe a few hours of community service and writing a letter to say sorry. 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."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (24 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
The BBC article is good, and I think this was probably a wise path to justice in this case.

I have to ask, though: who failed these kids? Because 16- or 17-year-olds should know better. My friends and I were painting anti-fascist graffiti at that age.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:39 AM on April 18 [13 favorites]


who failed these kids?

Maybe their parents? The community? The schools, for only taking a couple of days to go over the fabric of racism in our nation? Ultimately, it's the larger community... the United States of America that's failed these kids. The monthly reports on that book list should be a mandatory, yearly part of a children's education. We should have programs that encourage adults to discuss these books. Understanding the nature of oppression in the United States should be part and parcel of our everyday life. We must demand this of our leaders. We cannot grapple with these issues if we don't know their nature. We can't know better unless we are taught and teach better.

Reading these books shouldn't be a punishment because we all should've been well educated on racism, slavery, failed reconstruction, Jim Crow, immigrant exclusion, internment (concentration) camps from the beginning. It's not exactly an enjoyable enterprise to learn your ancestors were oppressors or oppressed. Or that you may benefit from oppression today, or to fully see the massive edifice of white supremacy standing above the plains of your everyday life. But seeing it explicitly named and naming it should be our duty as a citizens.
posted by Mister Cheese at 11:27 AM on April 18 [14 favorites]


I kinda get Marilyn Nelson's issue with having her reading assigned as "punishment", but honestly it doesn't seem much different from having your book included on any other mandatory school reading list, or curriculum for a highschool class that student's can't opt out of. And I think most people would agree that sometimes forced exposure to ideas you wouldn't otherwise seek out can be a good thing.

I remember reading The Color Purple in highschool English, which is totally not something that 16-year-old me would have otherwise sought out and read (contains zero Space Marines, laaaame) and yet I'm glad I read it despite my annoyance at the time. Perhaps some of these kids will remember one or more of their reading assignments similarly.

As for why the kids did it, who's really to say why 16-year-olds do some of the dumb shit they do. Boredom is a hell of a drug. Especially when you can't get any, you know, actual drugs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:03 PM on April 18 [9 favorites]


I remember reading The Color Purple in highschool English, which is totally not something that 16-year-old me would have otherwise sought out and read (contains zero Space Marines, laaaame) and yet I'm glad I read it despite my annoyance at the time. Perhaps some of these kids will remember one or more of their reading assignments similarly.

I teach a required combined English composition and literature course to non-majors. Most of them are trying to get into an academic or professional program that requires an English composition credit but doesn't require literature, and sometimes there is grumbling (among the students and administrators) that our course has a heavy literature component as well as research and writing skills. ("They're never going to have to read a novel in the nursing/trades/engineering program.") Like you said, Kadin2048, lots of kids would not choose to read the books, stories, or poems we get them to read (most of them written by and featuring POC, LGBTQ folks, and women), but afterwards they tell us that they learned a lot, their perspective was changed, and it was a very meaningful experience for them to discuss the literature with their classmates. My colleagues and I often have students come back to visit and tell us how they're doing years later, and many of them still remember (fondly!) the books we "made them read" and what they learned from them.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:12 PM on April 18 [16 favorites]


This is almost certainly a good thing and the book list is thoughtful.

"Reading as punishment" is an interesting objection, but "writing essays about books" has always been punishment for nearly everyone. To claim otherwise is to inhabit a very unique place in the academic world.

I also think assuming the essay excerpt is entirely sincere is a bit credulous. I want to believe. But, I also remember writing entirely fabricated, deeply emotional essays in high school designed to pull on the heart-strings of specific teachers. Who knows; they might actually mean it. At least they've been forced to think about it, even if they don't believe it. That's a lot better than most judicial interventions.

Now to quit procrastinating and get back to grading papers (with far less ethical weight) that I regret having assigned.
posted by eotvos at 1:21 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


The thing is, while I don't at all advocate prison for the perps, I do think you can make an argument that the penalty was too light by far considering the magnitude of the crime. Not prison, no, but at least a few years of monitoring by ankle bracelet, testing for alcohol to make sure the little darlings aren't out partying, community service cleaning up bad areas, in addition to their sensitivity training?

Maybe I'm just being vindictive, but I don't think demanding significant restitution for significant crime is particularly vengeful. They harmed society, they should need to work to help society. Sure, having them try to develop some empathy as well is a good idea, but it bothers me that the sentence seemed focused entirely on the needs of the white hate crime kids and not the needs of the community they hurt. "Oh, these poor children just don't have enough empathy" is not really a great response to hate crimes by privileged white jerks.
posted by sotonohito at 1:32 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]


There would be no benefit at all to spending money trying to detect and punish alcohol use in college students, which these kids were going to be shortly. And ankle bracelets are for people whose freedom of movement is restricted, not some sort of generic punishment.

The problem here is not that the penalty these kids got was too sensitive, it's that the penalties other children are routinely slapped with are too punitive and counterproductive.
posted by praemunire at 1:58 PM on April 18 [34 favorites]


How do we know they aren't out vandalizing other sites if we don't know where they are? I'd argue the majority of any legal consequence for a crime should be focused on preventing recidivism. They've proven that when we don't know their locations they will vandalize historic sites with racist graffiti, monitoring their location so we can know when they approach other similar sites seems entirely reasonable.

Same with testing for underage drinking. Privileged white teenagers often engage in binge drinking, preventing them from doing so seems reasonable and proper as after drinking people of that sort are more prone to violence and other criminal behavior.

Trying to get them to be more emphatic isn't a bad idea, but that it was the sum total of what happened to them is evidence that the criminal justice system really doesn't care about crimes committed by privileged white male teenagers. Can you imagine, even for a moment, that black teenage boys who had vandalized, say, a Confederate graveyard would have gotten a similarly gentile and easygoing penalty?
posted by sotonohito at 2:17 PM on April 18


I'd argue the majority of any legal consequence for a crime should be focused on preventing recidivism.
I would agree. And "tough on crime," or retributive, approaches do not prevent recidivism. They make us feel like we've done something, and make it look like we've done something, but they don't work. They neither restore the community nor do they prevent further harm. Rehabilitation works better.
The problem here is not that the penalty these kids got was too sensitive, it's that the penalties other children are routinely slapped with are too punitive and counterproductive.
Yep.
posted by Fish Sauce at 2:27 PM on April 18 [18 favorites]


the criminal justice system really doesn't care about crimes committed by privileged white male teenagers

Did you read the article? Only two of the five kids were white.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:01 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


I do have to say that I'd prefer that poetry weren't assigned like this. Poetry is something that the average American teenager already has an incredibly adversarial relationship towards. High school English classes treat it terribly and there's not a "popular YA poetry" equivalent to popular fiction where you're going to miss anything in your young adult life by admitting you never read Harry Potter or whatever. Novels being homework don't have the same level of negative associations.
posted by Sequence at 3:07 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


That's a fair point about poetry, I hadn't considered it separately from the novels.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:07 PM on April 18


"These kids had no prior record so there was no way they were going to get a custodial sentence at a penitentiary. The sentence I gave was harsher than what they would normally have received. Normally it would just be probation which would mean checking in with a probation officer once a month and maybe a few hours of community service and writing a letter to say sorry. 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"...

Two years later, none has reoffended, and all are still in education. The teenagers' lawyers say their families were "embarrassed" by their "stupid prank" and that the sentence had had its "intended effect".


I'm glad that none of the kids reoffended and all are still in education, but part of me wonders if the same outcome (no reoffenders, all still in education) is the most likely outcome for first-time non-violent juvenile offenders who get a standard sentence (checking in with a probation officer once a month and maybe a few hours of community service and writing a letter to say sorry).
posted by 23skidoo at 4:09 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


23skidoo, and now they’ve read twelve books and visited two museums they might not otherwise have come near.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:36 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


I think educating themselves, as part of their amends is reasonable. What I don't understand is how there's no community service involved. At the very least, they should have been the ones repainting the school. It's such a specific thing that the community did instead. (Maybe they hadn't been caught in time?)
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:22 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


Something makes me feel funny about literature-as-punishment, too. The goal of punishment is to reassert power-over. I'm not sure making someone read literature in this way is really about that. Instead, this reads to me as penance, the goal of which is to bring a sinner back into community.

I can imagine literature as punishment in, like, a reeducation camp. Like Xinjiang maybe. This doesn't really read like that to me.
posted by eirias at 6:30 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


How do we know they aren't out vandalizing other sites if we don't know where they are?

...wait, you think an appropriate punishment for vandalism is a few years' permanent surveillance by the police state? I think you're losing sight of some of the basic principles here.
posted by praemunire at 8:45 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


Hate crime level vandalism? Yes, absolutely.
posted by sotonohito at 4:23 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


ankle bracelets are for people whose freedom of movement is restricted, not some sort of generic punishment

Ankle bracelets are pretty much obsolete in an era of ubiquitous voluntary permanent attachment to GPS-enabled digital tracking devices.
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on April 19


Hate crime level vandalism? Yes, absolutely.

So, time to acknowledge to yourself that you're in favor of the carceral state, you just want it applied to everybody.
posted by praemunire at 8:07 AM on April 19


Me: Racists who deface historic landmarks with hate crime level graffiti should be tracked so they don't do that again.

You: You want society to be an open air prison!

Me: ???
posted by sotonohito at 9:10 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I'm in favor of the carceral state for neo-Nazis, yes, and some of that is retributive.

If we have to live in communities where this shit happens, where we have armed guards at our places of worship and historical sites, you know what, the people who do it can each spend at least a decade on probation, getting regular drug tests and otherwise being constrained from full participation in society.

I'd be open to other strategies if they're more effective - if giving each of these fuckers a poem and a big hug makes them the least likely to reoffend, fine, let's do that. To be clear, that's entirely about their targets' well-being, the human dignity of neo-Nazis like these is not a priority for me in the slightest.
posted by bagel at 9:26 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Most societies differentiate between young offenders and adult offenders. These were young offenders. I definitely believe that with youth especially, sentencing has a better chance of success (ie lower recidivism) with an educational component than without. And that is indeed better for everyone.

I don't like sneering rhetoric about coddling criminals, because that stereotypical portrait of weak-willed sentimentality is rarely what's driving attempts at reforming the justice system. In fact, it's often women and people of colour (the prosecutor in this case is a woman of colour) who are especially interested in non-retributive models.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:44 PM on April 19 [6 favorites]


At the very least, they should have been the ones repainting the school.

Most likely, the community and the school didn't want to wait for the trial and sentencing to be over first, especially since "make them repaint the school" had a good chance of not being part of their sentences even if it had been requested.

But "fix some other nasty graffiti" would've been nice - along with learning something of the history of racism and how it affects people, they could learn what kind of physical damage they did, and how much effort it is to fix.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:35 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


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