When five boys spray-painted a historic black school in Ashburn, Virginia, with swastikas, "WHITE POWER" and vulgar images, they were motivated more by teenage naiveté than by racial hatred, a prosecutor concluded.
Three of the boys are minorities themselves, and one also marked the walls with "BROWN POWER." None had previous troubles with the law.
So deputy commonwealth’s attorney Alex Rueda prepared an unusual sentence recommendation meant to educate them on the meaning of hate speech in the hope that they come to understand the effect their behavior had on the community.
The boys, who are all 16 or 17, have been sentenced to read books from a list that includes works by prominent black, Jewish and Afghan authors, write a research paper on hate speech, go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and listen to an interview with a former student of the Ashburn Colored School, which they defaced.
The school taught the county’s black children from 1892 until the 1950s, a period during which they were forbidden from attending school with white students.
The five teens pleaded guilty this week to destruction of property and unlawful entry in a Loudoun County court.
Rueda said the boys could benefit from understanding the devastating power of hate speech. The daughter of a former librarian, Rueda said she learned about the world through books.
Police said the boys went to the building late on Sept. 30 with spray cans and defaced the aging facade of the historic school.
"It really seemed to be a teachable moment. None of them seemed to appreciate – until all of this blew up in the newspapers – the seriousness of what they had done," Rueda said.
The boys targeted the building because it is owned by the Loudoun School for the Gifted, and one boy had left the private school on unfavorable terms, Rueda said. "So it really seemed to be an opportunity to teach them about race, religion, discrimination, all of those things."