Five Loudoun County teens who pleaded guilty to the vandalism of a historic Ashburn schoolhouse that once served black students will be required to research and report on the plight of minority communities and visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum as part of a year-long probationary period.
The 16- and 17-year-old defendants each pleaded guilty to one count of destruction of private property and one count of unlawful entry before Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Avelina Jacob. The five teens were charged with spray-painting graffiti—including swastikas, dinosaurs, vulgar sexual images and words such as “brown power” and “white power”—on three sides of the 125-year-old wooden structure on Sept. 30, 2016.
Handing down her sentencing this week, Jacob withheld a finding of guilt, provided the juveniles successfully complete probation and a series of requirements outlined by prosecutors as part of the plea agreement. Those include visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum and “The Day of Remembrance: The 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066” exhibit at the American History Museum. They will also be required to write one book report per month for the next 12 months from a list of 35 selected books, many of which are by Jewish, Muslim and African-American authors.
The boys also will 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.
The vandalism got national media coverage and spurred an outpouring of support from Loudoun residents, many of whom helped repaint the school and donated to the Loudoun School for the Gifted’s effort to renovate the school.
The unusual punishment was a recommendation from the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Rueda approached Deep Sran, founder and educational lead at Loudoun School for the Gifted, the small private school that has been working for years to restore the schoolhouse, and asked him what books he would recommend for the students. Sran suggested several books that highlight the plight of minority communities and their efforts to overcome prejudices. The list includes “Native Son” by Richard Wright, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini.
Sran also suggested that the teens be required to listen to a recorded interview of Yvonne Neal, describing her experiences at the Ashburn Colored School where she attended from 1938 until 1945.
“We thought it was a good idea for them to have an understanding of why this community would react the way they did,” Sran said, “and make a connection with the people who were most hurt by it, the former students.”
“It became very apparent to us as we reviewed the facts, and their statements to detectives, that these kids truly did not appreciate the significance or the meaning of what they were drawing on the building,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman said in a statement. “It also became obvious to us that their motivations had nothing to do with bigotry or hatred toward any class of people.”
Three of the teens are minorities.
“Because of this, we are seizing the opportunity to treat this as an educational experience for these young men so they may better appreciate the significance of their actions and the impact this type of behavior has on communities and has had throughout history,” Plowman said.
Sran said today that he agreed with the judge’s decision to withhold a finding of guilt. This was the first time any of the students had had trouble with the law and, Sran said, most of them probably didn’t know the building once served as a school for black children.
Phillip Thompson, president of Loudoun County’s NAACP, said he supports the required assignments given to the teens but he criticized Plowman for not charging them with a hate crime. “Make no mistake this was done based on hate, at the time, and racial animosity,” he said.
The cases are set to be reviewed by the judge next January.