It’s truly disheartening how quickly the American judicial system works to lock Black youth up. If you had any skepticism about how efficiently the school-to-prison pipeline works, the case of a 15-year-old girl in Michigan who was sent to juvenile detention for not doing her homework should quickly dispel it. Her case has generated national outrage and protests, and a ruling by a judge on Monday probably isn’t going to change that.
ProPublica reports Judge Mary Brennan has denied the 15-year-old, known only as “Grace,” her release. Brennan did so despite arguments from the child’s attorneys that the therapy and education she is getting is subpar and a letter from the prosecutor advocating for her release. Grace’s caseworker at Children’s Village, where she is currently being held, recommended Grace should be kept at the facility until she completes its months-long program. Grace is currently at the second of five stages in the program and completing it would take another three and a half months.
Over the course of the two-hour hearing, Brennan spent about 45 minutes outlining Grace’s prior history and her relationship with her mother, as well as pushing back against the notion that she sent Grace away because she didn’t do her homework.
Last year, Grace was charged with assault and theft for getting into a physical altercation with her mother and stealing another student’s phone. She was placed on probation in April of this year and one of her requirements was to complete all of her schoolwork. Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education, struggled with the transition to virtual instruction as a result of schools closing due to the pandemic. Her probation officer filed a violation against her in early May. Brennan found Grace guilty of violating her probation by “failure to submit any schoolwork and getting up for school,” and ordered her to be detained. She believed Grace to be a “threat to (the) community,” due to her prior charges.
At Monday’s hearing, Grace’s case coordinator at Children’s Village and the judge, reading from the caseworker’s report, said the girl has behaved well and has been engaged with the treatment program. She has met all the goals, was the “star resident” one week this month and is currently at the second of five stages in the program. Each stage takes about a month to complete, the case coordinator said, and she recommended that Grace complete the program. That would take another three and a half months, she said.
The court caseworker also recommended that Grace stay in the program. “They have made significant progress,” the caseworker, Ashley Bishop, said. “In speaking with mom, she reports they have been able to communicate much better, (Grace) is more self-aware, she is more serious, she is more thoughtful.”
“When I read this report, this is as good as it gets. ... This is excellent. She is on point, she is doing well, she is engaged,” Brennan said. She later said, “The worst thing I can do is say you are doing great, now let’s get you home and watch the whole thing blow up.”
Grace felt this assessment was unfair and didn’t fairly weigh her good behavior. “I know I can control myself. … That altercation should not be defining who I should be now,” she said, adding: “I can be respectful. I can be obedient. I feel like that is being completely disregarded, no offense,” she said.
Grace and her attorneys argued that the level of education she has been receiving at the facility are inadequate. “I am getting behind in my actual schooling while here. The schooling here is beneath my level of education,” she said. “And I know you may not seem to think this is a punishment, but in my heart, I feel the aching and the loss as if it were a punishment.”
Brennan felt that it wasn’t smart to send Grace back home because of her prior history of domestic violence and the pandemic keeping people predominantly at home. “She was not detained because she didn’t turn her homework in,” Brennan said. “She was detained because I found her to be a threat of harm to her mother based on everything I knew.” Grace’s mother told the judge during the original violation hearing that the two have not had an altercation during the probation period and that there has not been an incident since the assault charge in November.
As she issued the decision to keep Grace detained, Brennan, who seemingly believes she’s Hillary Swank in Freedom Writers, told Grace to “give yourself a chance to follow through and finish something.” Jonathan Biernat, Grace’s attorney, plans to appeal the decision. “We want her back at home with her mother,” he said.
It’s mind boggling that, considering all of the circumstances that factor into Grace’s violation, that Brennan both saw it fit to detain her and to double down on that decision. She is a child with a learning disability. The pandemic has completely disrupted things for both students and teachers and instead of trying to find a way to truly help Grace, the judge detained her. How is punishing someone for struggling being helpful? What lesson does the judge think she is teaching her?
At the end of the hearing Grace and her mother Charisse held each other for a minute, the first time they’ve been able to have physical contact through the pandemic, ProPublica reports. Charisse told Grace to, “stay strong.”
“I can’t,” Grace replied.