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Jailed for Not Doing Homework, Michigan Teen Tells Her Own Story

Photo by Cydni Elledge, via ProPublica)

Grace, a 16-year-old in Michigan who was incarcerated after not doing her online schoolwork is now released and fighting to make her story heard, ProPublica reports.

After serving a 78-day sentence at Children’s Village in Oakland County, Grace was released after the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered her release.

After Grace’s story gained attention across the country, some members of Congress called for a civil rights investigation as well as the Michigan Supreme Court ordering a review of the procedures that landed Grace in jail.

Grace, whose last name has been kept private, is now at a new school and has a job with Michigan Liberation, where she’s able to speak to people in her community and advocate for more criminal justice reform.

She recently spoke out about her story at Every Black Girl’s annual conference.

“You deserve better than your mistakes,” Grace said during the conference. “Your past does not define you.”

“Not only was Grace released, but the community has continued to surround and support her in love and affirmation; she had the ‘last word,’ at the Justice for Black Girls means Every Black Girl conference and inspired everyone in attendance,” said a Facebook post by Every Black Girl.

Her hashtag, #FreeGrace exploded over the summer and led to more than 350,000 signatures on a petition for Grace’s release from jail.

Grace’s story gained national attention over the summer when ProPublica Illinois investigated Grace’s case.

She was on probation for charges of assault and theft, and was incarcerated after she didn’t complete online schoolwork. Not completing her schoolwork, even while the pandemic brought major structural changes to the school system, was considered a violation of her probation.

Grace was incarcerated in May, even though education and law officials “urged leniency and a prioritization of children’s health and safety amid the crisis,” said the Propublica Illinois article.

In March, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order that lessened the amount of youth in detention centers unless they were considered a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others,” according to ProPublica.

Even though Grace’s probation violation wasn’t violent or dangerous to society, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan still ruled against her, saying that Grace’s charges of theft and assault were a “threat to (the) community,” and that not completing her schoolwork was a clear violation.

“She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance,” Brennan told ProPublica.  “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.”

Brennan is up for reelection on Nov. 2. She is running unopposed.

Even Grace’s teacher, when contacted by her case worker, said that Grace wasn’t “out of alignment” more than most of her other students, meaning that Grace’s one misstep that caused her to be sent to jail didn’t even make a difference in her schoolwork.

This reflects a larger problem of disproportionate sentencing and treatment of Black people within America’s criminal justice system, advocates say.

Oakland County’s juvenile cases comprise 42 percent Black youth, even though the Oakland County youth population is only 15 percent Black.

“There are so many other Graces out there who need a voice, and they need to be heard,” Grace said. “They are screaming, they’re yelling, they’re asking for help.”

While Grace wasn’t immediately given a jail sentence, the quickness by which the court sent her to jail after doing something that most youth across the country have done during the pandemic points to issues within the juvenile justice system.

Grace’s story has also called attention to how online learning is even harder for students with learning disabilities. Accommodations through online environments are tricky, and students like Grace who have ADHD or other learning disabilities are more likely to lose focus or get distracted in a completely online environment.

According to Propublica, Grace’s caseworker who filed the violation of her probation, “did not know what type of educational disabilities Grace had and did not answer a question about what accommodations those disabilities might require.”

Had the situation been more focused on how to help Grace with managing the new online environment instead of immediately resorting to punishment, she might have never gone to jail in the first place.

Propublica Illinois said that because juvenile cases have more confidentiality, it is “impossible to determine” whether a case like Grace’s is normal or not in today’s juvenile justice system.

Since her release, Grace has not had any further problems with the law.

Read more: School-to-Prison Pipeline Still Functions During Pandemic, Advocates Warn

Jailing of 15-Year-Old for Missing Online Schoolwork Tied to ‘Systematic Racism’

 Emily Riley is a TCR news reporting intern.