People are outraged on social media after a Michigan teenager, identified only as “Grace,” has been incarcerated for not completing her online coursework when her school switched to remote learning. The teen was on probation.
In a report from ProPublica, Grace, who is 15 and has ADHD, said she felt unmotivated and overwhelmed when online learning began April 15, about a month after schools closed due to coronavirus. Without much live instruction or structure, she was easily distracted and had difficulty keeping herself on track, she said.
Grace was on probation for assault and larceny, stemming from a fight with her mother and stealing a classmate’s ipad, when her case worker was told by Grace’s mother that she was falling behind on her schoolwork.
The case worker, Rachel Giroux, filed a violation of probation against her for not doing her schoolwork. Giroux told the prosecutor she planned to ask the judge to detain Grace because she “clearly doesn’t want to abide by the rules in the community,” according to the case notes.
Grace’s mother, identified only as Carissa, later said she told the case worker about Grace’s issues with virtual learning but that Grace had been working hard to stay on top of her work under less than ideal circumstances. Due to ADHD, Grace was under an Individualized Education Plan, which required teachers to periodically check in to make sure she was on task and clarify the material. The program also allowed her extra time to complete assignments and tests. When remote learning began, she no longer had the support system, her mother said.
Giroux filed the violation of probation before confirming with Grace’s teacher whether or not she was meeting her academic requirements. Grace’s teacher, Katherine Tarpeh, responded in an email to Giroux that the teenager was “not out of alignment with most of my other students.”
“Let me be clear that this is no one’s fault because we did not see this unprecedented global pandemic coming,” Tarpeh wrote. Grace, she wrote, “has a strong desire to do well.” She “is trying to get to the other side of a steep learning curve mountain and we have a plan for her to get there.”
In a court hearing in May, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, ruled that she found Grace “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” and called Grace a “threat to (the) community,” citing the minor assault and theft charges that led to her probation.
“She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance,” Brennan said as she sentenced Grace. “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.”
Because of the confidentiality of juvenile court cases, it’s impossible to determine how unusual Grace’s situation is. But attorneys and advocates in Michigan and elsewhere say they are unaware of any other case involving the detention of a child for failing to meet academic requirements after schools closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The decision, they say, 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. The case may also reflect, some experts and Grace’s mother believe, 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.
Across the country, teachers, parents and students have struggled with the upheaval caused by monthslong school closures. School districts have documented tens of thousands of students who failed to log in or complete their schoolwork: 15,000 high school students in Los Angeles, one-third of the students in Minneapolis Public Schools and about a quarter of Chicago Public Schools students.
Grace and her mother both testified that she had been struggling with remote learning because of her learning disabilities, but she was seeking help.
Brennan was unconvinced. Grace’s probation, she told her, was “zero tolerance, for lack of a better term.”
She sent her to juvenile detention and Grace was taken out of the courtroom in handcuffs. She remains in detention today.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Grace’s mother tells ProPublica. “Every day I go to bed thinking, and wake up thinking, ‘How is this a better situation for her?’”