April 10, 2018

One year later, teenage vandals reflect on their unconventional sentencing


Last year, we wrote about five Virginia teenagers who were assigned a syllabus of thirty-five books, fourteen movies, two museum visits, and one research paper to encourage “a greater appreciation for gender, race, religion, and bigotry” after they vandalized an historic African American schoolhouse.

For The New York Times, Christine Hauser followed up with the students to see what kind of impact this unconventional sentencing had on their perspectives. One student agreed to share his reading list—which included Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, and Elie Wiesel’s Night—and his court-ordered essay with the Times:

He describes not fully knowing what a swastika meant, and that he thought it “didn’t really mean much.”

“Not anymore,” he wrote. “I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair.”

Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of “oppression” and “white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case.”

He also wrote that while he had studied this period in history class, the lesson lasted only a few days.

“I had no idea about how in depth the darkest parts of human history go,” he wrote.

He wrote that he feels “especially awful” that he made anyone feel bad.

“Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation,” he wrote in his essay. “I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again.”

That seems like it was pretty much the point of this “punishment,” but others have balked at the notion that reading assignments could be considered an appropriate consequence for this kind of behavior.

“When I heard that the punishment was that they were going to have to do homework assignments, I was very disappointed,” Kamran Fareedi, seventeen, said. “All over the country we have a giant mass incarceration problem. And particularly African Americans do the slightest thing, their interaction with the criminal justice system is way more harsh. When people of color make mistakes they don’t get the chance to start over.”



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.