30,000 Demand Black Teenager Incarcerated for Not Doing Schoolwork Be Freed

Tens of thousands of people, including politicians and civil rights groups, are urging that a Black Michigan teenager who was sent to a juvenile detention center for not completing her schoolwork while on probation be freed.

The 15-year-old girl, referred to only as Grace, was ordered by a judge to be sent to Oakland County's juvenile detention center, Children's Village, after she failed to keep up with her schoolwork while remote learning as Groves High School in Birmingham closed in April because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The news of Grace's sentence in May was first reported by ProPublica and the Detroit Free Press.

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan ruled that the teenager had broken the terms of her probation, which stemmed from a fight she had with her mother and the theft of a student's cell phone at her school.

Brennan found Grace "guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school" and called Grace a "threat to (the) community," because of the charges she was on probation for.

"She hasn't fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance," Brennan said. "I told her she was on thin ice and I told her that I was going to hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation."

The decision has now been met with outrage as people demand that the 15-year-old, who isn't due to appear next in court until September 8 to have her case reviewed, be freed immediately.

A change.org petition, titled "Stop the School to Prison Pipeline - Free Grace from Incarceration" has since attracted more than 30,000 signatures.

The decision was also condemned by other school officials in Michigan. Oakland Schools' Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson said she shares the community's "deep concern and outrage" about the handling of the 15-year-old, who is reported to have ADHD.

"We firmly believe that no student should be punished for not completing online school work during this unprecedented pandemic," Cook-Robinson added.

Michigan congressman Andy Levin said he was "deeply disturbed" by the decision and asked the court to review it in light of state guidelines to limit juvenile detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This punitive sentence has unnecessarily separated a child from her mother during a global pandemic and put both at risk," Levin said.

"Unfortunately, this case is reflective of the harsh penalties children of color face throughout Michigan and the United States when dealing with the criminal justice system. In our state, Black children are incarcerated at four times the rate of white children. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is tragic to see the criminal justice system follow Black youth into their homes.

"Now more than ever we need to sever the school-to-prison pipeline that is denying students of color in Michigan the freedom and success they deserve. Bring this student home to her mother now."

Dave Noble, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, also demanded that Grace immediately be reunited with her family. "Anything short of that further exacerbates the trauma that she and her family have already endured," Noble said.

"This situation is shocking, but sadly it's not news. Black and Brown students are funneled out of the public school system and into the criminal legal system at alarming rates for minor infractions.

"Our children, especially those most vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline, deserve additional educational and counseling services. Instead, like Grave, they are isolated, punished and pushed out."

In a statement, Oakland County Executive David Coulter said he has spoken with Brennan and called for a review of the case.

"While there are many more details that she is unable to share with me and the public to protect privacy of the minor and their family, I believe a review of this case within her court or during an appellate process is required," Coulter said.

"It has been a top priority of my administration to keep the young people and employees safe at Children's Village during the pandemic and that includes limiting residency to immediate safety risks."

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File photo: A photo taken on November 21, 2016, shows handcuffs at the Commissariat de Police Nationale. Thousands are demanding that a Black teenage girl who was placed in a juvenile detention facility for not completing her online coursework be freed. THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty