LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now an update on a story - in 2017, five students who sprayed racist graffiti across an historic African-American schoolhouse in Virginia received an unusual punishment, reading 12 books then writing about the books over the course of the year. The titles included Maya Angelou's autobiographical "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain," dealing with immigration and xenophobia and Elie Wiesel's "Night," about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Alex Rueda is the deputy commonwealth attorney who came up with the sentence, and she joins me now to discuss what happened next. Thank you.
ALEX RUEDA: My pleasure being here. Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We spoke when the sentence was first issued. And you told me then that you wanted the teens who spray-painted swastikas and lewd symbols and wrote white power on this historic African-American schoolhouse to learn about race and religion. Do you think that they've learned their lesson?
RUEDA: I sure hope so. I mean, I was able to read the essay from one of the students. And what he wrote, I thought was very, very powerful when he talked about how, even though he had been taught about Nazi symbols in school, it had never really made an impression upon him. And once he learned about it and was made to read about it and write about it and go to the Holocaust Museum, it made him feel really bad. And having learned about this, he was going to make sure that he would never make anybody feel this way again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think you can teach tolerance? I mean, do you think that there is a wider lesson here - because obviously, this is a subject of great debate across America right now.
RUEDA: I think that the only way to teach tolerance is for people to learn about other cultures. And sometimes, the only way to do that is to read about it. You know, that was the way that I learned about those things. I mean, when I first read Alan Paton's "Cry, The Beloved Country," I knew nothing about South Africa. I didn't know anything about apartheid at the time. I remember weeping at my ignorance and at what people were going through. And so I'm hoping that that's what happened for them because that's what happened for me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people listening to this might say that's all fine and well, having people read. But these kinds of crimes, these kinds of attacks on people's identity are being treated more leniently than other types of crimes. And are these students not getting off lightly?
RUEDA: But they weren't. They were, in fact, treated much harsher than they would have otherwise. The standard disposition for youth in our justice system who has no prior record would be to be put on probation for a year - like they were - and to do community service and write a letter of apology and pay restitution. They were not facing being put in detention - into juvenile detention because this was not a crime of, you know, violence against another person.
So what was imposed upon them was above and beyond what any probationer would have had to do on a first-offense charge, like what they were facing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In many ways, this was an experiment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you consider the experiment a success, and should it be replicated?
RUEDA: I do consider it a success because they did not get in trouble again. The essays that they wrote - at least the one that the defense attorney made available to us - the student wrote that he understood. So to me, it worked. And my hope, my dream, my goal would be that this is not an unusual disposition that causes people to write about it in the newspaper or for me to be interviewed. I would love for this to be a standard disposition all over the place.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alex Rueda, the deputy commonwealth attorney for Virginia, thank you very much.
RUEDA: Oh, my pleasure.
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