Teen Incarcerated For Failing To Do Online Schoolwork Amid Pandemic

by Gina Vaynshteyn
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A 15-year-old Black student with special needs was incarcerated because she didn’t finish her schoolwork

On Tuesday, it was reported that a Black teenager in Michigan was sent to a juvenile detention center after a judge discovered she had apparently “violated” probation: 15-year-old “Grace” was incarcerated back in May because she didn’t finish her online schoolwork.

According to ProPublica, the outlet that first reported the case, Grace had been put on probation for stealing and fighting with her mom. The attorneys told the publication that they haven’t heard of a case like Grace’s, specifically that it’s highly unusual to incarcerate a child because they didn’t complete their coursework from home, due to all schools being closed. Additionally, not meeting scholastic requirements has nothing to do with Grace’s previous offenses. Ricky Watson Jr., the executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, stated, “Who can even be a good student right now? Unless there is an urgent need, I don’t understand why you would be sending a kid to any facility right now and taking them away from their families with all that we are dealing with right now.”

Several experts argue that Grace’s punishment doesn’t make sense, and exemplifies how systemic racial bias continues to disproportionally impact Black youth. ProPublica points out that Grace and her mother “Charisse” live in a mostly white community in which a large percentage of Black children and teens make up the juvenile justice system. Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, who is the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, found Grace “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school.” She, according to the ruling, called the teen a “threat to the community.” Brennan said that Grace “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 hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation.”

Grace, who was diagnosed with ADHD and a mood disorder, was shown to benefit more from in-person support from school staff. This made remote learning especially hard for her. Charisse told ProPublica that, without her Individualized Education Plan in place, she grew concerned that her daughter would become overwhelmed and not have the resources she had pre-COVID, which included teachers checking in on her to make sure Grace was understanding the material, as well as additional time to finish assignments. Charisse stated that when Grace was forced to transition to remote class, she wasn’t given the same support she had before, thus setting her up for failure.

Grace told her caseworker, Rachel Giroux, that she was feeling stressed out and anxious about meeting her requirements. Charisse told the caseworker in confidence that her daughter had been staying up late and sleeping in, but that she was working on a new schedule for Grace to help her stay on track.

“Worker told mother that child is not going to be perfect and that teenager aren’t always easy to work with but you have to give them the opportunity to change. Child needs time to adjust to this new normal of being on probation and doing work for home,” her caseworker noted. Five days after this, Grace fell asleep after checking in with Giroux, who immediately filed a violation of probation since she “clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community.”

However, Grace’s teacher noted that Grace’s behavior really didn’t stand out from the rest of her students during this time. Giroux emailed Grace’s teaching asking if there is a “certain percentage of a class she is supposed to be completing a day/week.” Grace’s teacher, Katherine Tarpeh, responded, saying Grace was “not out of alignment with most of my other students.” She added, “Let me be clear that this is no one’s fault because we did not see this unprecedented global pandemic coming. Grace has a strong desire to do well,” and “is trying to get to the other side of a steep learning curve mountain and we have a plan for her to get there.”

Terri Gilbert, who is a former supervisor for juvenile programming in Michigan, agrees that Grace’s sentence doesn’t make sense. “This is too harsh of a sentence for a kid who didn’t do their homework…There is so much research that points to the fact that this is not the right response for this crime. Teenage girls act out. They get mouthy. They get into fights with [their] mothers. They don’t want to get up until noon. This is normal stuff.”

ProPublica was able to get their hands on Oakland County Circuit Court records, which show that from January 2016 to June 2020, of the 4,800 juvenile cases, 42 percent involved Black youth even though Black youth makes up only 15 percent of the community. “It is clear that kids of color are disproportionately involved and impacted by the system across the board. They are more likely to be arrested, less likely to be offered any kind of diversion, more likely to be removed out of the home and placed in some sort of confinement situation.”

According to ProPublica, Grace has been transferred to a long-term treatment program at Children’s Village in Michigan, where she has slightly more freedom. Grace, who frequently communicates with her mom, is mournful about everything she’s missing. “Everyone is moving past me now and I’m just here,” she told her over a video call. In one of the letters Grace sent Charisse, Grace wrote, “I want to change. I want to be a better person. Here I’ve realized how much you care and love me. I’m sorry I took that for granted. Please continue to send me pictures of me and you or just with anyone. I love you mommy and I miss you.”

You can help by signing this petition to help free Grace from incarceration.