“Only in America”: Black Michigan Teen Jailed for Not Doing Homework

"Only in America": Michigan Teen Jailed for Not Doing Online Homework
(dcJohn / Flickr)

On Monday, a Michigan judge denied a motion to release a Black 15-year-old girl, identified by her middle name “Grace,” who has been held in custody since May for not completing her online schoolwork.

Grace’s story caused a flurry of outrage last week after ProPublica Illinois published a story about her incarceration—as many (understandably) believe the case reflects extreme systemic racial bias.

ProPublica reports:

Because of the confidentiality of juvenile court cases, it’s impossible to determine how unusual Grace’s situation is. But attorneys and advocates in Michigan and elsewhere say they are unaware of any other case involving the detention of a child for failing to meet academic requirements after schools closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Following a rise in media scrutiny, the agency that oversees the Michigan Supreme Court has opened a review of the case.

And according to 2015 data from the Sentencing Project, Black youth in Michigan are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed than their white counterparts.

Grace was brought into custody in mid-May for violating her probation by failing to complete her schoolwork under social distance learning protocols brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grace’s case worker reported her to the courts, and Grace was brought into custody at Children’s Village in Detroit after a trial held over Skype in May, at which Judge Mary Ellen Brennan called her a “threat to [the] community.” Grace had been initially placed on probation after an altercation with her mother and stealing a classmate’s phone.

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Grace has ADHD—a condition that often goes undiagnosed in Black children, girls in particular. As a result, she had received an Independent Learning Plan (IEP) at school, which gave her accommodations including increased time to complete assignments and extra support from teachers.

However, as ProPublica reported, when her school district moved to remote instruction in April, these accommodations were not honored—and without the structure of in-person education, Grace became distracted and began to struggle with completing her assignments.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

Of course, Grace’s problem is not unique: Since March’s universal move to online learning, teachers at some schools report less than half of students are participating.

And when it comes to learning and social disorders, ADHD has been shown to be a racialized diagnosis—many behaviors often used to diagnose the condition in white children, such as inability to pay attention and defiance to authority, can be interpreted as aggressive behavior or a conduct disorder in children of color. This can provoke an exaggerated response to behavioral issues from administrators and teachers, and result in children of color receiving stricter punishments or being held back, rather than getting the support they actually need to succeed. 

This diagnostic trend works in tandem with the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a situation where students of color are disproportionately incarcerated for issues their white peers would receive support for—reinforcing pre-existing educational disparities generation after generation.

The statistics for youth incarceration in Oakland County, the county Grace lives in, are staggering—over the past four years, 42 percent of the 4,800 cases referred to the county juvenile court involved Black youth. Yet only about 15 percent of the county’s youth are Black.

Grace’s case is just one example of a much larger trend of criminalizing Black youth—one that will only continue as the pandemic worsens existing education inequalities.

Grace’s case has attracted attention and support after going viral on social media. A petition calling for her to be released has received over 99,000 signatures as of Tuesday, and many people have turned out in support for peaceful protests.

Prison-Industrial Complex

In the prison-industrial complex, race-based disparities widen—and have real-life consequences. Remaining in custody, Grace will face decreased educational opportunities and less access to therapy than she previously had, in the middle of a pandemic that has shown drastically higher rates of COVID infections among inmate populations. All because she didn’t turn in her homework on time.

Grace’s next hearing is set for September 8. In the mean time, we must continue working against systems that perpetuate structural inequality—and this includes interrogating the ways in which schools, and punishment systems within schools, operate.

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Oliver Haug is an Editorial Intern with Ms. Magazine and a recent graduate of Smith college. Their writing has previously appeared in Autostraddle and the New York Times' newsletter "The Edit." You can read more of their work here, and follow them on twitter here.