When schools across the country canceled in-person classes amid the coronavirus outbreak this spring, student participation plummeted. Some students — in particular, those from low-income families — lacked adequate access to computers and Wi-Fi to complete their online coursework. Children with disabilities, who often require more in-person support, also struggled to adjust to the abrupt transition to remote learning. But participation issues were widespread: In early April, according to the New York Times, teachers in districts across the country were reporting that fewer than half of their students were routinely participating in virtual learning.
Yet despite how common school-participation issues have been amid the pandemic, not all cases have been treated with leniency. In mid-May, a Michigan judge found a 15-year-old Black student guilty of “failure to submit any schoolwork and getting up for school,” and sent her to juvenile detention. The case, reported by ProPublica in mid-July, ignited nationwide outrage, sparking conversations around the school-to-prison pipeline and systemic racism. Finally, after 78 days in detention, the student has been released.
On July 31, one week after Judge Mary Ellen Brennan denied a lawyer’s request to free the student — identified by ProPublica by her middle name, Grace — the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the teen’s immediate release. (Following Brennan’s rejection, Grace’s lawyer turned to the appellate court.) Two hours after the court’s order, Grace and her mother “jumped in the car and they were gone,” one of Grace’s attorneys, Saima Khalil, told ProPublica, adding that they were “definitely emotional and happy.” Grace’s other attorney, Jonathan Biernat, added, “It is amazing that she is going to be able to sleep at home tonight.”
Per Judge Brennan’s original ruling, the severe sentence was warranted because Grace — who attends a predominately white school — was on probation for fighting with her mom and stealing another student’s cell phone. Failing to complete her coursework, the judge ruled, was a direct violation of Grace’s probation. At the sentencing, Brennan described Grace as a “threat to (the) community,” and ordered that she be sent to Children’s Village, a 216-occupancy youth detention center. She had been in custody since May 14, when she was removed from the courtroom in handcuffs.
Nearly everyone else involved — Grace’s mother, Charisse, as well as the local legal and education communities — saw the punishment as excessive, especially amid a pandemic that has ravaged prisons and detention centers. According to Charisse, while Grace rarely missed school, her ADHD and mood disorders made it difficult for her to stay focused; on top of that, under remote learning, Grace lost the additional support provided to her under her Individualized Education Plan. At the end of April, Grace told her caseworker, Rachel Giroux, that she was suffering from anxiety and forgetfulness due to feeling overwhelmed. Eventually, Giroux filed a violation of probation against Grace after learning that she had fallen asleep after one of their check-ins.
According to ProPublica, Giroux filed the violation before reaching out to Grace’s teacher, Katherine Tarpeh, to confirm that Grace was failing to meet expectations. Tarpeh later said Grace was “not out of alignment with most of my other students.”
Some remarked that the Brennan’s ruling proved that, even amid a pandemic that has claimed more than 155,000 lives Stateside and has ground many aspects of life to a halt, the school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well for Black students. According to the Sentencing Project, Black youth in Michigan are incarcerated more than four times as often as their white peers. Additionally, in mid-March, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order discouraging the confinement of young people, unless a judge believed the juvenile to pose a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”
Even after ProPublica’s reporting on the case drew national attention and condemnation, Brennan remained steadfast in her decision to incarcerate Grace. On July, Brennan denied early release, arguing to Grace, “The right thing is for you and your mom to be separated for right now.” But Grace and her mother never saw the benefit of this forced separation. In a statement through the group Justice for Grace, Charisse called the situation “an emotional challenge.”
Per ProPublica, Grace will remain on probation — which demands that she be on home confinement with a GPS tether — pending “further order” from the Court of Appeals. Under probation, she is also ordered to have individual and family counseling, and will be required to attend school and complete her work when classes start back up.
This post has been updated.