Supporters Emerge To Help Free Michigan Black Teen Incarcerated For Not Completing Online Schoolwork

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Supporters Emerge To Help Free Michigan Black Teen Incarcerated For Not Completing Online Schoolwork

People are questioning why a judge would send her to a detention center during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Published July 15th

Written by Madison J. Gray

Outcry has emerged after a 15-year-old African American, Michigan girl was placed in juvenile detention by a judge for simply not doing her online homework. 

Nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica ran a story on Tuesday (July 14) about the girl identified only as “Grace” for her protection. Despite Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order in March suspending the confinement of juveniles who violate probation, except in the case of a court order, Grace was incarcerated in May for failing to complete the coursework.

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, presiding judge of the Oakland County (Mich.) Family Court Division, found Grace “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” and said she was a “threat to (the) community,” remarking the prior assault and theft charges surrounding her probation.

The severity of the sentencing has many now questioning the judge’s impartiality, bias and fairness demanding that this case be looked into once more.

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“I spoke with the Judge this evening," said Oakland County Executive David Coulter in a written statement, according to The Detroit News. "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.

"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,” he continued, referring to the detention center located in Pontiac, Mich., about 30 minutes north of Detroit.

In addition, several politicians who represent cities in Oakland County have spoken out, demanding justice for Grace. In a statement, State Senators Rosemary Bayer, Jeremy Moss, and Mallory McMorrow, and State Representatives Kyra Bolden and Mari Manoogian all criticized Brenan’s decision to incarcerate the girl.

“This judge’s decision to remove a child from her home and incarcerate her for falling behind on online school activities — especially given the current public health crisis — is unconscionable and shows the ongoing implicit bias within our state’s criminal justice system. This 15-year-old should be released and reunited with her mother immediately. 

“These decisions made by judges and prosecutors have a lifetime impact on individuals; they are supposed to be made impartially, dispassionately, and without regard to age, sex, race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” the statement continued. “As such, we call on the State Court Administrative Office to require judges to participate in implicit bias training before they assume the bench.” 

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Jason Smith, Director of Youth Justice Policy for the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, spoke to BET.com saying without solid statewide and county data, it’s difficult to know how often cases like this come up. However, violations like Grace’s not only send juveniles into incarceration, they are way too common.

“Young people are confined both in Oakland County and statewide, we know for sure for technical violations, for violating their probations,” said Smith.

“So not necessarily getting a new offense after being placed on community based probation but violating some order of the court, which could be something like testing positive for drugs, could be communicating with a victim that you weren’t supposed to, or it could be not regularly attending school or some sort of court recommended treatment program like counseling sessions.”

Judge Brennan’s heavy handed move against  Grace indicates a larger issue on how the justice system can fail youth, but also how it disproportionately treats young people of color more harshly, despite an overall reduction in the number of youth being jailed.

“The racial disparities of those that are incarcerated have increased,” said Smith. “It seems like a lot of white youth are being diverted away from detention or residential placement and placed in alternatives to confinement, but for Black youth like Grace that hasn’t been the case.”

Grace Under Fire

Grace had been charged with assault in November for an attack on her mother and larceny after she was accused of stealing another teen’s cellphone. But Grace and her mother (identified only as “Charisse” in the article) attended family therapy and there had been no incidents afterward, according to ProPublica. 

Earlier this year, the coronavirus pandemic emerged, forcing schools to shut down and convert to online learning. Grace’s school, Groves High School, located in the wealthy, mostly white, Detroit suburb of Birmingham, was among them.

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In April, there was another juvenile court hearing on the charges against Grace — conducted through a Zoom online chat in lieu of an in person appearance because of the pandemic. A caseworker told the court that Grace, who has ADHD, would be better off with anger management and mental health treatment. Her court appointed lawyer requested that she be given probation because there had been no new incidents and because of the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Brennan gave her “intensive probation” which included wearing an electronic tether, check-ins with a counselor and other requirements.

Her probation started around the same time as remote schooling, which was supposed to include several measures of support from the school that her mother said she never received. Over the next few weeks, Grace was failing to meet some of the probation requirements, falling asleep once after a caseworker checked-in and realizing that her schoolwork was not getting done. Because of these fallbacks, the caseworker, Rachel Giroux, filed a violation of probation and told the prosecutor that she would ask the judge to detain the girl because she “clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community,” according to her case files.

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Finally, at the May 14 hearing, Grace said that transitioning to online learning had proved difficult for her and her special education teacher Katherine Terpeh defended Grace acknowledging that the school could have done better in providing more information. 

“Let me be clear that this is no one’s fault because we did not see this unprecedented global pandemic coming,” Tarpeh wrote to the court.. Grace “has a strong desire to do well.” She “is trying to get to the other side of a steep learning curve mountain and we have a plan for her to get there.”

Despite this and her mother’s in-person testimony saying that she had improved, Brennan adjudicated reminding Grace that her probation involved “zero tolerance.”

"She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance,” Brennan said during the sentencing hearing. “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 taken out of the courtroom and led away in handcuffs. She has sat in detention ever since that day.

To Smith, that is one of the most racially egregious aspects of this case.

“She is a Black girl in a predominantly white community and that makes the comments from the judge saying that she’s a threat to her community all the more damaging,” he told BET.com. “To label any child a threat to their community is harmful. 

“To do that to a Black girl in this era, with everything that’s going on with police brutality to racial injustice — the microscope that the justice system has on their treatment of Black and Brown people and Black and Brown youth, to make that statement now is disappointing,” said Smith.

A Call For Action

Alumni of Birmingham Seagrove High School started a  Change.org petition which has been widely circulated on social media and signed (as of press time) by over 21,600 people with a 25,000 signature goal. They are petitioning the Oakland Family Court Division, Birmingham Public Schools and Judge Brennan to turn this case around.

A second petition to release Grace has also spread, asking the Michigan State House, Judge Brennan, the Oakland County Courts and Gov. Whitmer to reverse the decision. It cites the racially disproportionate numbers of Black youths detained in Oakland County. So far, 8,500 people of a 10,000 signature goal (as of press time) have signed in support of letting Grace go home.

According to the petition: “15% of the county's youth is Black, yet 42% of cases that went to Oakland court were Black — and per the article they are less likely to be offered any type of diversion, removed from home and sent to a facility — just as we are seeing in Grace's case.”

Another study, from the National Juvenile Defender Center, which was cited in the ProPublica story, found that Black youth in Michigan are disproportionately sentenced and often do not receive adequate representation in court when accused of crimes.

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“Michigan ranks sixth highest in the country for the confinement of youth, with a disproportionate number being youth of color,” the study, titled “Overdue for Justice” reads. “In Michigan’s two public and more than 50 private juvenile facilities, nearly two-thirds of young people who are incarcerated are youth of color, despite being only 20 percent of the state’s population.”

Phone calls from BET.com to Grace’s public defender Elliot Parnes were unsuccessful and emails were not returned. Neither were calls to the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office. But Smith says Grace does have support in the community and the case is being closely watched. 

“There are supporters seeking quality defense representation for her,” Smith said. “There is strong support. We as an organization are trying to amplify that message and the petition to make sure that she’s released immediately. Not only that, but get the treatment and services that she needs.”

Photo: Getty Images

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