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Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

African American Teen Jailed for Not Completing Homework Exemplifies Larger Problem

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Image credit: Krissy Venosdale

The story of Grace, a Groves High School student who was sent to a juvenile detention center after failing to complete her schoolwork, shines a light on the intersection of criminal justice, youth, race and disability in Oakland County.

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A Groves High School student who spent 78 days in Children’s Village, a juvenile detention center, for violating one of the terms of her probation, doing her homework, was released last week. She remains on probation. 

That was the surprise, that she was put in detention when some would argue that there was not a substantial and immediate threat.” – Jodi Cohen, ProPublica Illinois

Now, the Michigan Supreme Court and the Oakland County Court are examining this specifics of this case. 

Listen: The story of Grace and being an African American student in suburban Detroit.


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Jodi Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois. She broke the story in July after Grace’s mother tipped her off, and has been following up ever since. 

Oakland County Family Court Division Judge Mary Ellen Brennan’s decision to incarcerate Grace* was based on her contentious relationship with Grace’s mother, as reflected in child welfare calls and calls to police, says Cohen. She says Brennan’s rationale for placing Grace in Children’s Village was for her to complete a therapeutic program where she could work on her behavioral issues.

Cohen was surprised that Grace was detained given Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to temporarily suspend the confinement of juveniles who violate probation, especially as those who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. 

From the minute the probation officer said she was violating her probation, you can see in the records that [Grace’s mother] said, ‘please don’t do this,’ and made a list of all the things they were doing the next day,” says Cohen. Ever since then, Grace’s mother had been advocating for her release.

It’s just been really interesting to watch, and brought up issues people need to mobilize on,” says Cohen.

Jason Smith is the Director of Youth Policy at the Michigan Center for Youth Justice. He says that Grace’s case is unique because her teachers and school administrators supported her release. However, he also says her case is exemplary of how the school-to-prison pipeline works in Oakland County.

We need better data. We need to understand how many Graces are out there.” — Jason Smith, Michigan Center for Youth Justice 

While there is not strong, accurate data to say how much of an occurrence this is in Oakland County. A lot of young people of color end up in the juvenile justice system because of academic offenses,” Smith says. “Actions that are academic in nature resulting in them becoming involved in the juvenile justice system – this is a nationwide phenomenon.”

In fact, Smith says one of the problems the juvenile justice system of Oakland County has is lack of reporting and data.

The problem that we have, not just in Oakland County but statewide, is a lack of publicly reported data. We need better data. We need to understand how many Graces are out there,” he says. 

Tylene Henry is a parent leader with the Birmingham African American Family Network and an alumna of Birmingham Public Schools. She says that Grace’s story reflects many aspects of demographic change in the school district and the lack of support that students of color can have in the school and justice system. 

Some folks thinks that you can move to a better ZIP code and you’re in an environment with better resources, but the system hasn’t changed,” Henry says.

We see African American students being pushed more into alternative learning programs, we see them being suspended more often and pushed out of the classroom. That’s a historical thing.” — Tylene Henry, Birmingham African American Family Network

Henry says that inequities in the classroom for Black and minority students isn’t new, and it isn’t just happening in Birmingham. She says she believes these problems are from as far back as the integration of schools in the 1950s.

We see African American students being pushed more into alternative learning programs, we see them being suspended more often and pushed out of the classroom. That’s a historical thing,” Henry says.

She says that the Birmingham African American Family Network works to bridge the gap between minority families in Birmingham and school administrators. 

We really try to be a voice so that parents who may feel like they are one in a huge environment of parents that don’t look like them, have a voice,” she says.

This post was written by Detroit Today student producers Ali Audet and Lauryn Azu.

*WDET is using the student’s middle name to protect her privacy.

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