Judge denies release of teenage Black girl jailed after not doing homework

"I miss my mom. I can control myself. I can be obedient," the 15-year-old girl known as Grace reportedly said during a hearing Monday.
/ Source: NBC News

A 15-year-old Black girl who has been incarcerated in Michigan since mid-May after she failed to do her online schoolwork won't be returning home, a judge decided Monday, in a case that has stoked outrage that it is emblematic of systemic racism and the criminalization of Black children.

Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan determined that the girl has been benefiting from a residential treatment program at a juvenile detention center, but is not yet ready to be with her mother. Brennan, the presiding judge of the court's Family Division, scheduled another hearing for September, NBC affiliate WDIV reported.

The girl, who is being identified only by her middle name, Grace, was the subject of a report published last week by ProPublica Illinois, with politicians and community activists expressing outrage over her incarceration.

During a three-hour proceeding, Brennan told Grace that it was in her best interest to stay in the program after all of the progress she had been making.

"Give yourself a chance to follow through and finish something," Brennan said, according to the Detroit News. "The right thing is for you and your mom to be separated for right now."

Grace, however, told the judge that she wanted to go home: "I miss my mom. I can control myself. I can be obedient."

After the hearing, an attorney for the family, Jonathan Biernat, confirmed that Grace had been making strides, but the "fight for her release" is ongoing. He was unavailable for further comment later Monday.

A protester sits on top of a car in support of a Black student at Groves High School in Beverly Hills, Michigan, who was jailed due to a probation violation of not keeping up with her online schoolwork.Emily Elconin / Reuters

This past school year, Grace was a sophomore at Groves High School in the Birmingham Public Schools, which is 79 percent white, according to school district data.

Over the past few days, parents and students in suburban Detroit have protested in support of Grace's release from the Children's Village in Oakland County, the detention center where she's been held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

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At Monday's hearing, Brennan stressed that police had responded to incidents between the mother and the daughter three times, and that Grace's detainment was the result of that, the Detroit News reported.

"She was not detained because she didn't turn her homework in," Brennan said. "She was detained because she was a threat to her mother."

Brennan also addressed the scrutiny the case has come under.

"My role is to make decisions that are in this young lady's best interest, period," Brennan said. "I took an oath that I would not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism."

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, is among those who have questioned whether race was a factor in detaining Grace. Black youth in Michigan are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed than white youth, according to 2015 data analyzed by the nonprofit Sentencing Project.

"If it was a white young person, I really question whether the judge would have done this," Dingell said Monday on MSNBC. "Putting a young person in a confined area in the midst of COVID isn't the answer."

White students join in protests in support of a Black high school student who was jailed after not keeping up with her online schoolwork during the coronavirus pandemic.Emily Elconin / Reuters

On Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court said it would review the circumstances surrounding Grace's detainment.

Her case not only touches upon the issue of racial bias within the criminal justice system, but is also entwined with larger concerns over the coronavirus' spread in juvenile detention centers, as well as how children with learning disabilities are being disparately affected during the pandemic as a result of home schooling.

According to ProPublica, Grace has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and receives special education services.

The girl and her mother, identified as Charisse, had bouts of conflict. In 2018, Grace was placed into a court diversion program for "incorrigibility," but was released from it early, Charisse told ProPublica.

In November, an assault charge was filed against Grace after police were called to an incident in which the mother said Grace became violent because she was upset she couldn't go to a friend's house. Weeks later, according to ProPublica, Grace was charged with larceny after she was caught on surveillance video stealing another student's cellphone from a school locker room. The phone was subsequently returned.

A juvenile court hearing was held virtually in April, and a caseworker told the judge that Grace should receive mental health and anger management treatment at a residential facility; the prosecutor agreed. A court-appointed attorney asked for probation for Grace because she had not been in any further trouble since November and because of COVID-19 concerns at detention facilities, ProPublica reported.

"My mom and I are working each day to better ourselves and our relationship, and I think that the removal from my home would be an intrusion on our progress," Grace said at the time, according to ProPublica.

Robin Alford writes messages on her car at Groves High School in support of a Black fellow student.Emily Elconin / Reuters

Brennan sentenced Grace to "intensive probation," with several requirements, including staying home, checking in with a caseworker, no phone use and completing her schoolwork. But the girl was unable to focus properly while learning from home, and she told a new caseworker in April that she felt anxious about the probation and overwhelmed.

After her caseworker learned she had fallen back asleep one day and failed to do her homework, a hearing was held in May and the judge decided she had violated the terms of her probation.

ProPublica noted that Grace's teacher had told the caseworker in an email that Grace was "not out of alignment with most of my other students," and how she was coping was "no one's fault because we did not see this unprecedented global pandemic coming."

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Grace was ordered to juvenile detention because she was deemed a "threat to community as original charge was assault and theft," according to court records.

Grace's supporters say the court's decision to incarcerate her simply underscores the racial disparities in even the juvenile system. According to ProPublica, from January 2016 through June 2020, about 4,800 juvenile cases were referred to the Oakland County Circuit Court. About 42 percent involved Black youth, although the population in the county is about 15 percent.

Tylene Henry, who has a teenage son in the local school district and was among several supporters outside of the courthouse Monday, said she doesn't know Grace, but her situation has "opened up my eyes to the school-to-prison pipeline problem."

Henry said she supports Grace's release and a larger overhaul of the juvenile system.

"There's a lot of students like Grace. They're put into the criminal justice system as children instead of getting the help they really need," she said. "Why does mental health and behavioral health treatment have to come at a cost of being held in a detention center?"

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com.

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