Earlier this week, ProPublica and the Detroit Free Press published a story about a 15-year-old Black girl, identified only as Grace, who is currently detained in a Michigan juvenile detention center for not keeping up with her schoolwork. The article, which went viral, chronicled the struggles between Grace, her mother and the legal system leading up to her incarceration. Now, tens of thousands of people have signed a petition urging a juvenile court judge to dismiss the case against her.
A Change.org petition addressed to the Oakland County Family Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan and the Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education, where Grace attended high school, has amassed more than 33,000 signatures in just two days.
The petition notes that Grace has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is used for students who have learning disabilities and thus need specialized attention and care in the classroom. Grace violated the terms of her probation when she missed some of her online coursework. However, her caseworker reported this to the judge, who deemed Grace a “threat to the community” and placed her in Children’s Village, a juvenile detention center in Detroit.
“It’s been 33 days and she’s still there,” the petition reads. “Please sign this petition to show your support to free Grace, provide her with the support and resources she ACTUALLY needs, and dismiss her case.”
The writeup also includes contact information for Judge Brennan and the members of the BPS Board of Education.
Among those calling for her release are major civil rights organizations, such as the ACLU of Michigan, and local and state officials, reports Newsweek.
Oakland County Schools’ Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson put additional pressure, saying she shared “deep concern and outrage” about the high schooler’s treatment.
“We firmly believe that no student should be punished for not completing online school work during this unprecedented pandemic,” Cook-Robinson stressed.
“Unfortunately, this case is reflective of the harsh penalties children of color face throughout Michigan and the United States when dealing with the criminal justice system,” Michigan congressman Andy Levin added. “In our state, Black children are incarcerated at four times the rate of white children. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is tragic to see the criminal justice system follow Black youth into their homes.”
The case resonated with many because of the way Grace’s challenges—which were not unique to many teenagers and their families during the pandemic—were criminalized. During the second hearing, in which Grace was sentenced to juvenile detention, a teacher was scheduled to testify on her behalf but had to leave to teach a class.
ACLU of Michigan’s Executive Director, Dave Noble, also called for Grace’s immediate release: “Anything short of that further exacerbates the trauma that she and her family have already endured.”
There appears to be some movement on Grace’s case since the report was published. Oakland County Executive David Coulter said he has spoken with Judge Brennan privately, and publicly called for a review of the case.
“While there are many more details that she is unable to share with me and the public to protect [the] privacy of the minor and their family, I believe a review of this case within her court or during an appellate process is required,” Coulter said, adding that a top priority of his administration is to limit residency at the juvenile detention center.
If nothing changes, Grace is scheduled to remain incarcerated until her next court date on September 8.