Michigan Judge Refuses To Free Teen Jailed After Skipping Schoolwork

A 15-year-old known only as Grace has been detained since mid-May, sparking protests against the school-to-prison pipeline.

A Michigan judge has refused to release a 15-year-old Black high school student who was incarcerated after failing to complete her online schoolwork, which the judge said violated her probation.

Oakland County Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, who denied the motion for early release on Monday, said the teen was benefiting from a residential treatment program and it would be in her best interest to complete it, Michigan Radio reported. 

The teen, identified only by her middle name Grace, has been in juvenile detention at Oakland County’s Children’s Village since mid-May, according to a ProPublica report published last week that sparked local protests and widespread outrage over racial inequity in the education and criminal justice systems. As noted by ProPublica, Grace is a member of a predominantly white community in a county where a disproportionate number of Black youth have been involved with the juvenile justice system. 

Grace told the judge during Monday’s three-hour hearing that she wanted to go home, the Detroit News reported.

“I miss my mom,” she said. “I can control myself. I can be obedient.”

“Give yourself a chance to follow through and finish something,” the judge told her, according to the newspaper. “The right thing is for you and your mom to be separated for right now.”

Grace, who has ADHD and participates in a special education plan, had been on probation for assault and theft charges from November, when she allegedly bit her mother and pulled her hair during a disagreement, according to the report. Several weeks later, she allegedly stole a cellphone from the locker of a fellow student at her school, Birmingham Groves High School.

Rules mandated by her probation required Grace to complete her schoolwork. But after schools ceased in-person classes during the coronavirus lockdown, Grace struggled to meet the requirements and adjust to online learning. She failed to complete assignments and was sentenced to detention.

“She was not detained because she didn’t turn her homework in,” Brennan said Monday. “She was detained because she was a threat to her mother.”

Birmingham Groves High School students gathered in the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills, Michigan, to call for Grace's release
Birmingham Groves High School students gathered in the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills, Michigan, to call for Grace's release last week. They carried signs emblazoned with phrases such as "#FreeGrace," "Justice for Grace" and "End the school to prison pipeline."

Addressing the attention the case has drawn, the judge said her “role is to make decisions that are in this young lady’s best interest, period.” 

“I took an oath that I would not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism,” Brennan said.

Activists and protesters have pointed to issues highlighted by the case, most notably the criminalization of Black children, the school-to-prison pipeline and the disadvantages of remote learning for children who have special learning requirements during the pandemic.

Nearly 90,000 people have signed a petition calling for Grace’s release and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. Hundreds of her fellow students protested last week with signs bearing phrases including “Free Grace,” “I didn’t do my school work either,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Birmingham Public Schools said in a statement last week that no child should face consequences for missed work due to the sudden change to the “challenging, virtual learning environment.”