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Payge Deron writes a letter of solidarity to Grace, a Black teenager who was sent to a juvenile detention facility in May for violating her probation after not doing her online schoolwork. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press)

Prosecutors Say They Support Releasing Girl Who Was Detained for Not Doing Her Schoolwork

Although earlier this year prosecutors pushed for the detention of a Michigan high schooler during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have now repeatedly said they support sending her home to her mother.

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This story was co-published with the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine.

The Oakland County prosecutor’s office has told the Michigan Court of Appeals that it supports the release of a 15-year-old high school student who has been in a juvenile facility since May when she violated probation by not completing her schoolwork.

The response from Prosecutor Jessica Cooper’s office on Wednesday came after an attorney for the Michigan teenager, known as Grace,* asked the Michigan appellate court on Monday to hear the case on an emergency basis and order her released immediately from the facility where she has been held since May 14. Cooper is up for reelection in a primary next week.

“We are very thankful to the Oakland County prosecutor for their concurrence in this matter. It is clear they see the injustice in Grace’s continued detention,” said attorney Jonathan Biernat, who represents the Birmingham Public Schools student. He asked the appellate court to issue its opinion by Aug. 3. “We are confident that the Court of Appeals will grant our request and allow Grace to return home.”

Cooper’s office pushed for Grace’s detention earlier this year, but now it has repeatedly said it supports sending her home to her mother. At a hearing last week in suburban Detroit, the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, Mary Ellen Brennan, denied a request from Biernat to release the teenager, saying the girl will benefit from the mental health treatment she receives at the Children’s Village detention center. Both Grace and her mother have pleaded for her to return home.

Grace’s case, detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation this month, has sparked protests in Michigan, including one Wednesday night, and has drawn widespread attention. Members of Congress, state lawmakers and Birmingham Public Schools board members, among others, have called for her release, and more than 300,000 people have signed an online petition.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s oversight agency is reviewing the procedures in the case.

On Wednesday, six federal lawmakers asked the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case, saying they have “grave concern” about the decision to detain Grace during the COVID-19 pandemic. They asked the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate and for the Justice Department to review the judge’s order to detain Grace and her denial to release her last week. The lawmakers asked for a response by Aug. 7.

Grace is Black, and activists and others, including her mother, say her case highlights systemic racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. From January 2016 through June 2020, about 4,800 juvenile cases were referred to the Oakland County court. Of those, 42% involved Black youth even though only about 15% of the county’s youth are Black, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis. Research also has shown a disproportionate number of youth of color are incarcerated in Michigan.

“While Grace has faced many personal challenges in her young life, it was her lack of completion in online coursework that the judge cited as the definitive reason for sentencing Grace to juvenile detention,” the request from the lawmakers states. “This is simply unacceptable.”

The letter was from Michigan Reps. Andy Levin, Debbie Dingell, Brenda Lawrence, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaib, as well as Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts. They wrote that the case “points to deeply entrenched systemic issues” and cited data that shows Black girls with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from school.

Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education services, struggled with the transition to online learning and fell behind when her Michigan school stopped in-person classes because of COVID-19. Two weeks after being put on probation in April, Grace’s probation officer filed a violation of probation charge against her, citing incomplete schoolwork.

“Particularly as schools ready for the upcoming academic year, we must be clear that our children should be provided with additional supports and services, they should not be criminalized for their lack of engagement in online instruction,” the lawmakers wrote, adding, “Grace’s ongoing detention presents persistent threats to her health and wellbeing as well as her civil rights.”

An Education Department spokesperson said in a statement that the department “looks forward to reviewing the letter.” “The Department has been very clear that the requirements of civil rights laws are not on hold during this pandemic,” according to the statement.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Naomi Mae joins a protest Wednesday night to free Grace. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press)

Grace was a sophomore at Groves High School when she was charged with assault and theft for separate incidents last year in which she bit her mother’s finger and pulled her hair and then, weeks later, stole another student’s cellphone.

Brennan placed Grace on probation on April 21, and, among other requirements, required her to complete her schoolwork. Her probation officer filed a violation against her on May 5.

On May 14, Brennan found Grace guilty of violating probation for “failure to submit any schoolwork and getting up for school.” She ordered her detained, concluding Grace was a “threat to (the) community” based on the prior charges of assault and theft. Grace was placed in secure detention at Children’s Village, in suburban Detroit, for about three weeks and then transferred to a residential treatment program within the facility.

The decision to detain Grace came while the state was operating under an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to eliminate any form of detention or residential placement unless a young person posed a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”

At a hearing last week, Brennan defended her decision to detain Grace and recounted the contentious relationship between the girl and her mother, citing police and child welfare records mostly from 2017 and 2018. The records describe Grace yelling, pushing, punching and biting her mother, and her mother’s inability to control her, including her request in 2018 for Grace to enter a court diversion program for her “incorrigibility,” the judge said. She also mentioned Grace’s mental health treatment and troubles at school, including her theft of school technology, as well as social services support to help resolve conflicts between the mother and daughter.

Brennan said it would be best that Grace complete the treatment program at Children’s Village, where the teenager has met all goals and was the “star resident” one week. The program could take three more months to complete.

“I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be,” Brennan said in her ruling to keep Grace at the facility. “You are blooming there, but there is more work to be done.”

Brennan said she didn’t detain Grace for not doing schoolwork but because she found her to be a “threat of harm” to her mother. But at the May probation violation hearing, Grace’s mother testified that her daughter did not cause her any physical harm during the probation period. Grace said last week that there had been no physical altercations between the two after the original assault charge in November.

ProPublica is using the teenager’s middle name to protect her identity.

Update, July 30, 2020: This article has been updated with comment from the Education Department.

Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system. Previously, Jodi worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations. Contact Jodi by email and on Twitter.

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