The girl, Grace, hadn’t broken the law again. The 15-year-old wasn’t in trouble for fighting with her mother or stealing, the issues that had gotten her placed on probation in the first place.
She was incarcerated in May for violating her probation by not completing her online coursework when her school in Beverly Hills switched to remote learning.
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.
The decision, they say, flies in the face of recommendations from the legal and education communities that have urged leniency and a prioritization of children’s health and safety amid the crisis. The case may also reflect, some experts and Grace’s mother believe, systemic racial bias. Grace is Black in a predominantly white community and in a county where a disproportionate percentage of Black youth are involved with the juvenile justice system.
Across the country, teachers, parents and students have struggled with the upheaval caused by monthslong school closures. School districts have documented tens of thousands of students who failed to log in or complete their schoolwork: 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.
Students with special needs are especially vulnerable without the face-to-face guidance from teachers, social workers and others. Grace, who has ADHD, said she felt unmotivated and overwhelmed when online learning began April 15, about a month after schools closed. Without much live instruction or structure, she got easily distracted and had difficulty keeping herself on track, she said.
“Who can even be a good student right now?” said Ricky Watson Jr., executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “Unless there is an urgent need, I don’t understand why you would be sending a kid to any facility right now and taking them away from their families with all that we are dealing with right now.”
In many places, juvenile courts have attempted to keep children out of detention except in the most serious cases, and they have worked to release those who were already there, experts say. A survey of juvenile justice agencies in 30 states found that the number of youths in secure detention fell by 24% in March, largely due to a steep decline in placements.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order in March that temporarily suspended the confinement of juveniles who violate probation unless directed by a court order and encouraged eliminating any form of detention or residential placement unless a young person posed a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.” Acting on Whitmer’s order, which was extended until late May, the Michigan Supreme Court told juvenile court judges to determine which juveniles could be returned home.
Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, declined through a court administrator to comment on Grace’s case. In her ruling, she found Grace “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” and called Grace a “threat to (the) community,” citing the assault and theft charges that led to her probation.
“She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance,” Brennan said as she sentenced Grace. “I told her she was on thin ice and I told her that I was going to hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation.”
That June afternoon, a month after the sentencing, Charisse left Children’s Village without seeing Grace, but she did pick up a shopping bag of clothes and toiletries she had delivered days earlier. She said officials had rejected them because they violated facility rules: underwear that wasn’t briefs; face wipes that contained alcohol; a pair of jeans deemed too tight.
Charisse counts each day they’re apart, and that was day No. 33. Another month has since passed, and there could still be months to go before they are at home together again.
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