In May, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a 15-year-old girl in Michigan was found in violation of her probation. The girl, identified as Grace (not her real name), sat in her bedroom on a Zoom court call with her mother dialed-in while in another room.
ProPublica Illinois reports that Grace didn’t break the law again, and she wasn’t in trouble for fighting with her mother or stealing—the issues that got her in trouble with the law in the first place.
Instead, Grace was found to be in technical violation of her probation because she did not complete her online coursework when her high school switched to remote learning.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” the girl’s mother complained.
Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge of Grace’s case and the Oakland County Family Court Division, sentenced Grace to be incarcerated in a juvenile detention center.
Judge Brennan cited that she found Grace “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” while calling Grace a “threat to (the) community,” as she mentioned the assault and theft charges that led to her probation.
Judge Brennan declined ProPublica’s request for a comment on Grace’s case.
It’s still unclear how much longer Grace will need to be away from her family.
The girl’s story has attracted attention from youth justice advocates who say Grace wasn’t the only individual who didn’t complete their remote learning school work during the height of the pandemic.
Some 15,000 high school students in Los Angeles, one-third of the students in Minneapolis Public Schools and about a quarter of Chicago Public Schools students, all failed to log in to complete assignments.
But because of the confidentiality around the juvenile court, it’s impossible to know how “unusual” Grace’s now criminal situation truly is.
The decision to incarcerate the 15-year-old on the grounds of incomplete academics has startled many in her community. Grace’s mother calls it a case of systematic racial bias: Grace is Black in a predominantly white community.
ProPublica also says that their Michigan neighborhood where there is a “disproportionate percentage” of Black youth entangled with the justice system — 42 percent of juvenile cases involved Black youth, even though only about 15 percent of the county’s youth are Black.
This observation about racial biased isn’t novel. In nearly every part of the juvenile justice system, “young people of color experience more restrictive consequences than their white counterparts,” The Crime Report recently reported.
The AECF Juvenile Justice Strategy Group released a report last week that found only about one-fifth of currently detained young people are white, but more than half are African American and nearly one-fourth are Latinx.
Special Needs and Disabilities
Moreover, students with special needs are more likely to fall into criminality due to behavioral outbursts that result from a lack of care or treatment, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and MST Special Needs Services writes.
Grace has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and an uncategorized mood disorder, and she said she felt “unmotivated and overwhelmed when online learning began April 15,” — about a month after her high school closed.
Grace has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which explained to her school that she needed extra support to be successful, like requiring teachers to periodically check in to make sure she was on task and clarify the material. It also outlined that she needed “extra time to complete assignments and tests.”
Grace’s mother said when remote learning began, she did not get those supports and Grace says without the structured schedule a typical school day provides, she got easily distracted and couldn’t keep herself on track, according to ProPublica.
But, these factors didn’t sway Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge of Grace’s case and the Oakland County Family Court Division — and it doesn’t sway many judges in juvenile court.
The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services estimates that “the percentage of incarcerated youth with disabilities typically range from 30 percent to 60 percent, with some estimates as high as 85 percent.”
Another study outlined by MST showed that in the U.S., out of the incarcerated youth population, “20 percent of the youth with emotional and behavioral disorders were arrested while in high school,” — fitting Grace’s profile perfectly.
Kris Keranen, a long time disability advocate for the Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service commented on the case, saying.“It is inconceivable that, given the utterly unprecedented situation, a court would enforce expectations about what student participation in school means that was not tied to the reality of education during a pandemic.”
Additional Reading: The Crisis of America’s Disconnected Youth — and How to Connect Them