Advocates call for release of Michigan girl, 15, incarcerated for not doing her homework
Teen placed in juvenile detention for violating a condition of her probation, ProPublica reports
A Michigan judge's refusal to release a 15-year-old Black girl who was detained for not doing her homework proves that racism in the criminal justice system is "everyday business," says a woman advocating for the teen.
The girl, identified by the pseudonym "Grace" to protect her identity, was placed in juvenile detention at the Oakland County Children's Village in May for violating her probation by not completing her schoolwork.
She has ADHD and struggled to keep up with school after classes switched to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, her family and lawyer have said.
Her story was first reported by ProPublica Illinois and co-published in the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine.
"It's sad, but Grace's story, this is not an outlier. This is something that happens all the time, every day to our youth, Black and brown, in these communities," Rai LaNier of the non-profit Michigan Liberation told As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue.
"The difference is that we've had a summer of uprising that has allowed people to see what we mean when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline in real time."
Michigan Liberation is a non-profit that helps incarcerated people. The group has been supporting Grace and her mother and organizing rallies on their behalf. They also operate a super PAC endorsing candidates at all levels of U.S. government that support criminal justice reform.
"Grace's family is arguing, and the community is arguing, that failure to do homework should never be a condition of incarceration," LaNier said. "It should never be a condition of probation."
Assault, theft charges
Grace's current legal woes began in November, when she was charged with assaulting her mother.
The girl's mom, identified as Charisse, told ProPublica that someone called police after Grace pulled her hair and bit her finger while trying to snatch her phone outside their Pontiac, Mich., home in the suburbs of Detroit.
They were fighting because Grace wasn't allowed to go to her friend's house.
It was not the first time Grace had gotten into trouble for attacking her mom. She'd been having behavioural issues since she was about 13, her mother said. Charisse herself had called police in the past.
But the pair have since gone to counselling to work on their relationship, she said, and Grace has not been violent with her since.
"Grace was a student that had special needs. Her mother is a single mother and required additional resources," LaNier said.
"It results in situations where you have no one else to call but the police. And I think that's what's at the core issue here... How can families and parents get the support that their children need without it ending up in a criminal background history for their children?"
A few months after the assault, Grace was also charged with theft for stealing another student's cellphone at school. She later returned the device and apologized.
Judge 'will not be swayed'
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, who ordered Grace's detention, denied a motion to release the girl on Monday.
She defended her decision, saying her job is "to make decisions that are in this young lady's best interest, period" and that she "not be swayed by public clamour or fear of criticism."
She also claimed the story has been mischaracterized, and Grace "was not detained because she didn't turn her homework in," but rather "because she was a threat to her mother."
Jessica Cooper, the Oakland County prosecutor, told the New York Times: "We recommended that she be released, but the judge disagreed."
The Michigan Supreme Court is reviewing the decision.
"I think that the people in the state of Michigan, particularly in Oakland County, have a decision to make ... as to whether or not, you know, we want to make it a regular practice of incarcerating children for close to a year for not doing their homework, or do we want to try something different?" LaNier said.
During the hearing, Brennan told Grace she was "blooming" at Children's Village, a facility that describes itself online as "a safe, structured environment for youth that includes secure detention, residential treatment and shelter care services."
LaNier says that language is misleading.
"They know it's incarceration. We know it's incarceration. But in order to save face, you know, it's been called a residential facility," she said.
Students and teachers join protest
Grace's story has generated widespread interest, resonating at a time when people across the U.S. are protesting against police violence and anti-Black racism.
According to data obtained by ProPublica from the Oakland County Circuit Court, 42 per cent of juvenile cases referred to the Oakland court between January 2016 and June 2020 involved Black youth, despite the fact that only 15 per cent of the county's youth are Black.
Grace's mother told the publication that it gutted her to see her child on video during court hearings cuffed at the wrists and ankles.
"For us and our culture, that for me was the knife stuck in my stomach and turning," she said. "That is our history, being shackled. And she didn't deserve that."
Many of Grace's classmates and teachers at Black Groves High School are standing by her. Students and educators from all over the county have showed up at rallies to protest her detention.
"A lot of people were behind on their work this semester; no one had motivation to do anything because the teachers weren't teaching and we were all online. I know so many people that didn't do their homework," Prudence Canter, an 18-year-old student, told Reuters.
Birmingham Public Schools said last week that it had no role in the case, but that no student should be punished for missed online work during the coronavirus pandemic. It also asked the Circuit Court to review the case.
Grace's own teacher, Katherine Tarpeh, wrote in an email to the girl's case worker that her behaviour was "not out of alignment with most of my other students."
"Let me be clear that this is no one's fault because we did not see this unprecedented global pandemic coming," she wrote, according to ProPublica.
Grace and her mother have not been doing interviews since the ProPublica story was published, but LaNier said they appreciate how the community has rallied around them.
"They have reason to take heart. They've been extremely overwhelmed with gratitude, with community support," LaNier said.
As for Judge Brennan, LaNier says she's been "put on notice." She is currently up for re-election in the state.
"A lot of these other powerful actors within the criminal legal system have also been put on notice because the community is no longer asleep," she said.
"We know who they are. We know when their terms are up. And we are checking their records from here on out."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Rai LaNier produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.
- An earlier version of this story stated that Grace was detained for violating her parole. In fact, she was detained for violating her probation.Jul 24, 2020 1:26 PM ET