Graffiti Vandals Sentenced to Read Books

Two and a half years ago, in September 2016, Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda dealt with a case where five teenagers between the ages of sixteen and seventeen were arrested for spraying offensive, racist graffiti such as swastikas on an old schoolhouse in Virginia. The schoolhouse taught black students during the era of segregation. The teenagers pleaded guilty to one count of destruction of private property and one count of unlawful entry.


image via bbc


When Rueda heard what was going on years ago, she decided to investigate it further, and when she realized it was the teenagers, she took matters into her own hands.


“The graffiti was racially charged – they had spray-painted swastikas and phrases like ‘White Power’ and ‘Brown Power’. But there were also images of dinosaurs, women’s breasts and penises. And I thought, ‘This doesn’t look like the work of sophisticated KKK people out to intimidate – it looks more like the work of dumb teenagers.'”


image via bbc


Reuda saw this as a learning opportunity since she believed that the children did not know what they were doing, especially when it came to spraying painting a swastika.

The judge endorsed the prosecutor’s order that the teenagers should be handed down a “disposition” as a sentence known for juvenile cases. Alejandra Rueda made a list of thirty-five books and ordered the offenders to choose one title a month for a year and to write a book report on each of the twelve books they wanted. Rueda explained that they had to write twelve assignments and 3,500-word essay on racism and what they had done.


Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

The Tortilla Curtain – T.C. Boyle

The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

Cry the Beloved Country – Alan Paton

My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok

Exodus – Leon Uris

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

Night – Elie Wiesel


Volunteers painted over the graffiti and the old schoolhouse was opened to the public in 2017.


image via bbc


image via bbc


All five of the teenagers completed their reading and writing assignments and completed their mandatory visits to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Museum of American History’s exhibit on Japanese American internment camps in the US. Two years later, the teens were unwilling to give an interview, but one of them agreed to share their final essay. “We have to educate kids out of ignorance,” says Alejandra Rueda. “And with children, our focus has to be on rehabilitation and not retribution if we want results,” the prosecutor said.


The final paragraph, the conclusion of the essay said, People should not feel less than what they are, and nobody should make them feel that way. I think especially awful after writing this paper about how I made anybody feel bad. Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter their race or religion or sexual orientation. I will do my best to see to it that I am never this ignorant again.


Check out more of the story from BBC, reported by Emma Jane Kirby and you can hear Emma Jane Kirby’s report on the World at One, on BBC Radio 4.


Featured Image via Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash