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Black Teen Sent to Juvenile Detention for Not Doing Schoolwork During the Pandemic

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A Black Michigan teen was sent to juvenile detention because a judge ruled she had violated her probation when she did not complete her online schoolwork during the pandemic, Jodi S. Cohen reports for ProPublica. The teen, referred to only as Grace, has been incarcerated at the Children's Village in Detroit since May.

Grace had been on probation for "fighting with her mother" and stealing, but it was the fact that she didn't do her online schoolwork once the pandemic hit that landed her in juvenile detention. Attorneys and others in Michigan say the decision "flies in the face of recommendations from the legal and education communities that have urged leniency and a prioritization of children's health and safety amid the crisis."

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Others, including Grace's mother, Charisse, believe Grace's case may be an example of "systemic racial bias." "Grace is Black in a predominantly white community and in a county where a disproportionate percentage of Black youth are involved with the juvenile justice system," Cohen reports.

Grace is far from the only student in the country who failed to complete her schoolwork once classes went online because of the pandemic. And students with special needs, like Grace, who has ADHD, were even more likely to fall off without their normal accommodations. 

Although many states, including Michigan, have issued orders to "suspend the confinement of juveniles who violate probation" unless they pose immediate safety risks, Grace still ended up incarcerated. 

Grace and Charisse's relationship became rocky when she was about 13 years old, and because Charisse didn't know what else to do, she called the police several times when Grace pushed her or yelled at her. In one instance, police found Grace took an iPad from school without permission. 

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After several other incidents, Grace was charged with assault and larceny. Grace and Charisse began going to therapy — both individual and family — to work through their issues and make sure Grace stayed out of trouble. 

Even though they'd been stuck at home during the pandemic, there were no serious issues between Grace and Charisse for months. In Grace's April court hearing for the charges, which took place over Zoom, Grace fought to stay home with her mom instead of being placed in a "residential facility" to deal with her anger and mental health issues.

"My mom and I do get into a lot of arguments, but with each one I learn something and try to analyze why it happened," she said. "My mom and I are working each day to better ourselves and our relationship, and I think that the removal from my home would be an intrusion to our progress."

Grace was permitted to stay in her home, but she was officially on probation. One of the conditions of that probation was that she had to do her schoolwork.

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And while it seemed to go OK at first, Grace quickly lost steam with online school, just as so many other kids did in the last few months of their school year. When Grace is at school, she gets extra attention and check-ins from teachers as well as extra time to complete assignments. Those accommodations went away when school went online, and she quickly became overwhelmed and anxious about schoolwork and the requirements of her probation.

When Grace's caseworker discovered she had fallen asleep after her morning check-in and hadn't completed her schoolwork, she filed a violation of probation against her. Cohen writes that Grace's caseworker "filed the violation of probation before confirming whether Grace was meeting her academic requirements." 

Days later, she emailed Grace's teacher, Katherine Tarpeh, who said that Grace was "not out of alignment with most of my other students." Tarpeh said, "Let me be clear that this is no one's fault because we did not see this unprecedented global pandemic coming."

Grace's case was the only one held in person at the courthouse that day. Her attorney called in on Zoom. Grace's caseworker, the person who filed the violation of probation, was the only witness called by the prosecution. She admitted that she had no knowledge of Grace's educational disabilities. Grace's teacher had to leave the hearing to teach a class and could not advocate for her.

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But the judge said that Grace's probation was a "zero tolerance" situation, and the teen was sent to detention, where she has remained since. Charisse has visited several times, but Grace will be there at least until September when a hearing is set to review her case.

Terri Gilbert, a former supervisor for juvenile justice programming and advocate in Michigan, said, "This is too harsh of a sentence for a kid who didn't do their homework ... There is so much research that points to the fact that this is not the right response for this crime. Teenage girls act out. They get mouthy. They get into fights with their mothers. They don't want to get up until noon. This is normal stuff."

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