When coronavirus first reached the United States, the Black community already knew it would be disproportionately affected by the pandemic in a myriad of ways. Now, even with new measures in place to protect citizens’ health, the old remnants of systemic racism are creeping in. Case in point: The story of a 15-year-old Michigan teen who was incarcerated after a judge ruled she violated her probation by not completing her online coursework.
The Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine co-published the story of Grace*, a Black girl in a predominately white community who was sent to the Children’s Village juvenile detention center in suburban Detroit in May. When her school in Beverly Hills, MI, switched to remote instruction as a result of Covid-19 on April 15, Grace who has ADHD and a mood disorder, “said she felt unmotivated and overwhelmed when online learning,” ProPublica reported.
Online schoolwork commenced at the same time as Grace’s probation. The teen had been charged with larceny and assault as a result of incidents that occurred as far back as the age of 13. During a juvenile court hearing on April 21 that was conducted via Zoom, “Ashley Bishop, a youth and family caseworker for the court, told the judge she thought Grace would be best served by getting mental health and anger management treatment in a residential facility. The prosecutor, Justin Chmielewski, said he agreed. Grace’s court-appointed attorney, Elliot Parnes, said little but asked that she be given probation because she had committed no new offenses and because of the risk of COVID-19 in congregate facilities.” Because of the pandemic, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, sentenced Grace to “Intensive probation.” That meant “a GPS tether, regular check-ins with a court caseworker, counseling, no phone and the use of the school laptop for educational purposes only.”
Just a week after the start of remote learning, Grace told her new caseworker that she was feeling overwhelmed. Her mother noted that her daughter’s Individualized Education Plan not only allotted extra time for Grace to complete assignments and tests but also required teachers to regularly check in with her to see if she needed any assistance and was on task. “When remote learning began, she did not get those supports, her mother said.” Five days later and still struggling, Grace’s caseworker filed a violation of probation against her for not doing her schoolwork. Case notes show the caseworker “planned to ask the judge to detain Grace because she ‘clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community.'”
Despite Grace’s teacher telling the caseworker that the teen was “not out of alignment with most of my other students,” when Grace had another hearing on May 14, Judge Brennan called her a “threat to the community,” as a result of her assault and theft charges and found the Sophmore “guilty of failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school.” As she sentenced Grace, Judge Brennan said “She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance. 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.”
Grace was sentenced to a juvenile detention center despite the move across the country to keep children out of detainment due to Covid, except in particularly severe cases. In their reporting, ProPublica noted Grace lives “in a county where a disproportionate percentage of Black youth are involved with the juvenile justice system.” That speaks to the inherent racial bias in the ruling against Grace, as does this finding that “School districts have documented tens of thousands of students who failed to log in or complete their schoolwork: 15,000 high school students in Los Angeles, one-third of the students in Minneapolis Public Schools and about a quarter of Chicago Public Schools students.” Yet, the publication noted, “attorneys and advocates in Michigan and elsewhere say they are unaware of any other case involving the detention of a child for failing to meet academic requirements after schools closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”
During a court hearing in early June, Grace and her mother pleaded with the judge to allow her to come home. The judge, siding with the caseworker and prosecutor, agreed Grace should remain at the Children’s Village to get mental health treatment. The next hearing to review the case is set for September 8.
*Grace is the teen girl’s middle name.