A Michigan judge has sparked backlash after a new report found she sentenced a Black teenager to a juvenile detention facility for a probation violation. The violation? That the teen had not been completing online assignments as her school shifted to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The student, a 15-year-old Black girl identified as Grace, has ADHD. Grace said she had struggled to adjust and to keep up with her schoolwork after beginning remote learning in April, according to the report, co-published on Tuesday by ProPublica and the Detroit Free Press. Disruptions to students’ education caused by school closures across the U.S. has been widely reported, especially as access to high-speed Internet at home is not evenly distributed throughout the country. (Limited at-home educational resources, parental oversight and the potential lack of a suitable learning environment are also factors impacting students’ experiences.)
Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, who presides over the Oakland County Family Court Division, ruled in May that Grace had broken the terms of her probation — which stemmed from a prior fight with her mother, and a charge of larceny after she was caught stealing another student’s cellphone at school — by not doing her homework. Brennan, who is white, ordered that Grace be sent to the county’s juvenile detention center, Children’s Village. According to ProPublica, Grace is required to remain at the detention center until a hearing to review the case set for Sept. 8.
“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,” Brennan said during Grace’s sentencing. Brennan also called Grace a “threat to the community.”
Her ruling came despite an executive order issued in March from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which called for the elimination of juvenile detention to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus unless an individual was a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”
Brennan could not immediately be reached for comment.
Grace’s mother, identified in the report as Charisse, said her visits with Grace since her incarceration have been limited. She described the deep pain of seeing her daughter’s ankles shackled and wrists bound in handcuffs at the detention facility. “For me and our culture, that for me was the knife stuck in my stomach and turning,” Charisse told ProPublica. “That is our history, being shackled. And she didn’t deserve that.”
An analysis of 4,800 cases that were referred to the Oakland County Circuit Court from January 2016 to June 2020 found that 42% involved young Black people, despite Black youth only making up 15% of the county’s population.
During the hearing to decide whether she violated her probation, Grace acknowledged that attending school online was difficult, but said it was something she could work toward improving. “I just needed time to adjust to the schedule that my mom had prepared for me,” she explained.
Amid growing outrage following the report’s publication — and calls from people online that Brennan be fired specifically — Oakland County Executive David Coulter on Tuesday evening asked the court to review Grace’s case again.
“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 in a statement, noting that he had spoken with Brennan about her ruling. “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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