When coronavirus cases began rising nationwide in March, schools across the country closed their doors and directed students to some form of online learning. To say it was an unprecedented end to the school year would be an understatement and many students and teachers alike have struggled to adjust to remote schooling. But while most students have been met with leniency and compassion, one Black teen in Michigan was jailed for not doing her homework while learning virtually during the coronavirus pandemic and after nearly 80 days in detention, she has now been released.
ProPublica was the first to report on the case of "Grace", a 15-year-old Black student with ADHD at Groves High School in Beverly Hills, Michigan, who the news outlet identified only by her middle name. In mid-May, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan sentenced Grace to a juvenile detention facility after finding her "guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school."
On July 31, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned Brennan's ruling and ordered Grace be released from the detention facility immediately. "We are elated," Jonathan Biernat, an attorney for Grace, said following her release, as ProPublica reported. "We are so happy for Grace to be going home. It is amazing that she is going to be able to sleep at home tonight." ProPublica's Jodi Cohen reported on Twitter that "within two hours of the court order" Grace's mother picked her up and they left the detention facility "emotional and happy."
According to ProPublica, Brennan viewed reports noting Grace had failed to complete her schoolwork while participating in remote learning as a violation of the probation she had been put on for assaulting her mother during a fight and stealing a cell phone from another student. "She was not detained because she didn't turn her homework in," Brennan said, according to ProPublica. "She was detained because I found her to be a threat of harm to her mother based on everything I knew."
Brennan ultimately ordered Grace to be detained despite the fact Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order in March to suspend the detention of juveniles found to have violated the terms of their probation during the coronavirus pandemic unless they were found to pose an immediate safety risk.
But court records obtained by ProPublica revealed Grace's teacher had told her case worker that Grace's transition to remote learning was on par with most of her other students. In fact, a Common Sense Media poll of kids between the ages of 13 to 17 found nearly half of them failed to attend a single virtual class in the early weeks of remote learning. Overall, according to Common Sense Media's poll, 47% of public school students reported not having participated in a single online class — meaning the Black teen was sentenced to detention for acting in ways similar to a number of other students.
News of Grace's sentencing sparked outrage and led to protests and public condemnation from high-level public figures including former Secretary of State and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who tweeted "Let her go" on July 21. Michigan Liberation, Color of Change, and the Advancement Project also launched a Free Grace petition, calling on Brennan to immediately release Grace and resign from the bench of the Oakland County Family Court.
And in late July, six members of Congress called on Attorney General William Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to intervene in Grace's case. They argued, "a child who is grappling with the stress of an unprecedented pandemic, coupled with a history of mental health issues, and living with disabilities should never be criminalized for her lack of participation in an online learning program."
While Grace was released from juvenile detention last week, she's expected to remain on probation pending a further order from the court. But state leaders have cautioned Grace is "just one case in our broken criminal justice system," as Michigan's U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell tweeted. "Let this case shine a light and raise awareness of the work we still need to do."