Prosecutors support releasing Michigan girl detained for not doing schoolwork

The detention of a teenage girl amid the coronavirus pandemic for not doing her homework has prompted protests in Pontiac, the county seat of Oakland County. (Photo by Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press)

This story was co-published with ProPublica Illinois and Detroit Free Press.

The Oakland County prosecutor’s office has told the Michigan Court of Appeals that it supports the release of a 15-year-old high school student who has been in a juvenile facility since May when she violated probation by not completing her schoolwork. 

The response from Prosecutor Jessica Cooper’s office on Wednesday came after an attorney for the Michigan teenager, known as Grace,* asked the Michigan appellate court on Monday to hear the case on an emergency basis and order her released immediately from the facility where she has been held since May 14. Cooper is up for reelection in a primary next week.


“We are very thankful to the Oakland County prosecutor for their concurrence in this matter. It is clear they see the injustice in Grace’s continued detention,” said attorney Jonathan Biernat, who represents the Birmingham Public Schools student. He asked the appellate court to issue its opinion by Aug. 3. “We are confident that the Court of Appeals will grant our request and allow Grace to return home.”

Cooper’s office pushed for Grace’s detention earlier this year, but now it has repeatedly said it supports sending her home to her mother. At a hearing last week in suburban Detroit, the presiding judge of the Oakland County Family Court Division, Mary Ellen Brennan, denied a request from Biernat to release the teenager, saying the girl will benefit from the mental health treatment she receives at the Children’s Village detention center. Both Grace and her mother have pleaded for her to return home.

Grace’s case, detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation this month, has sparked protests in Michigan, including one Wednesday night, and has drawn widespread attention. Members of Congress, state lawmakers and Birmingham Public Schools board members, among others, have called for her release, and more than 300,000 people have signed an online petition.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s oversight agency is reviewing the procedures in the case.

On Wednesday, six federal lawmakers asked the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the case, saying they have “grave concern” about the decision to detain Grace during the COVID-19 pandemic. They asked the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate and for the Justice Department to review the judge’s order to detain Grace and her denial to release her last week. The lawmakers asked for a response by Aug. 7.

Grace is Black, and activists and others, including her mother, say her case highlights systemic racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. From January 2016 through June 2020, about 4,800 juvenile cases were referred to the Oakland County court. Of those, 42% involved Black youth even though only about 15% of the county’s youth are Black, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis. Research also has shown a disproportionate number of youth of color are incarcerated in Michigan.

“While Grace has faced many personal challenges in her young life, it was her lack of completion in online coursework that the judge cited as the definitive reason for sentencing Grace to juvenile detention,” the request from the lawmakers states. “This is simply unacceptable.”

The letter was from Michigan Reps. Andy Levin, Debbie Dingell, Brenda Lawrence, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaib, as well as Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts. They wrote that the case “points to deeply entrenched systemic issues” and cited data that shows Black girls with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from  school.

Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education services, struggled with the transition to online learning and fell behind when her Michigan school stopped in-person classes because of COVID-19. Two weeks after being put on probation in April, Grace’s probation officer filed a violation of probation charge against her, citing incomplete schoolwork.

“Particularly as schools ready for the upcoming academic year, we must be clear that our children should be provided with additional supports and services, they should not be criminalized for their lack of engagement in online instruction,” the lawmakers wrote, adding, “Grace’s ongoing detention presents persistent threats to her health and wellbeing as well as her civil rights.”

An Education Department spokesperson said in a statement that the department “looks forward to reviewing the letter.” “The Department has been very clear that the requirements of civil rights laws are not on hold during this pandemic,” according to the statement.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Grace was a sophomore at Groves High School when she was charged with assault and theft for separate incidents last year in which she bit her mother’s finger and pulled her hair and then, weeks later, stole another student’s cellphone.

Brennan placed Grace on probation on April 21, and, among other requirements, required her to complete her schoolwork. Her probation officer filed a violation against her on May 5.

On May 14, Brennan found Grace guilty of violating probation for “failure to submit any schoolwork and getting up for school.” She ordered her detained, concluding Grace was a “threat to (the) community” based on the prior charges of assault and theft. Grace was placed in secure detention at Children’s Village, in suburban Detroit, for about three weeks and then transferred to a residential treatment program within the facility.

The decision to detain Grace came while the state was operating under an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to eliminate any form of detention or residential placement unless a young person posed a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”

At a hearing last week, Brennan defended her decision to detain Grace and recounted the contentious relationship between the girl and her mother, citing police and child welfare records mostly from 2017 and 2018. The records describe Grace yelling, pushing, punching and biting her mother, and her mother’s inability to control her, including her request in 2018 for Grace to enter a court diversion program for her “incorrigibility,” the judge said. She also mentioned Grace’s mental health treatment and troubles at school, including her theft of school technology, as well as social services support to help resolve conflicts between the mother and daughter.

Brennan said it would be best that Grace complete the treatment program at Children’s Village, where the teenager has met all goals and was the “star resident” one week. The program could take three more months to complete.

“I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be,” Brennan said in her ruling to keep Grace at the facility. “You are blooming there, but there is more work to be done.”

Brennan said she didn’t detain Grace for not doing schoolwork but because she found her to be a “threat of harm” to her mother. But at the May probation violation hearing, Grace’s mother testified that her daughter did not cause her any physical harm during the probation period. Grace said last week that there had been no physical altercations between the two after the original assault charge in November.

*ProPublica is using the teenager’s middle name to protect her identity.

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Robert Honeyman
Thu, 07/30/2020 - 7:15pm

Too little, too late, Ms. Cooper. You can't be doing switchbacks for political reasons. You clearly had no problem with incarceration until it became a target on your back in the primary. My vote went to McDonald.

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 9:46am

No kidding. This case turns my stomach along with all the other election year antics.

Al Churchill
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 8:33am

It is unfortunate that the narrative related to this young ladys problem has been, pretty much, focused on the perception that she is being punished because of a reluctance to do homework. Never mind that she cannot even get out of bed to attend school.
Judge Brennan made the right decision. The young girls past behavior is clear evidence of her being a physical threat to her mother, perhaps others.
It is likely that the professionals she would receive help from at at Childrens Village would serve her better than returning to a home where she feels not even the need get out of bed. Sympathetically, it needs to be said that both the mother and her daughter need long term help that is not, currently, being provided.
Sadly, that the prosecutors suddenly changed their mind in this case smells to political high heaven and the politicians attaching themselves to this young lady, including Haley Stevens, who represents me in Lansing and I almost always agree with, need to take a much closer look.
Making Grace a media celebrity, wrongly treated, when the issue is not that clear cut, has the potential to do more harm than good.

Al Churchill
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 8:26pm

Correction. Haley Stevens is my representative in Washington, not Lansing and, absent this instance, is doing an exceptional job for the country.

Lock her up
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 8:44am

She is not in jail because of her failing to do homework she is (correctly) in jail for assault and theft. She violated the conditions of her release and this was returned to jail. The girl gets mental health treatment in jail as well. Keeping her in jail accomplishes two great things. Grace is learning that her actions have consequences and other “kids” see that the rules do apply and it is better to follow the rules. Keep her locked up!

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 5:11pm

tRump justice?

Fri, 07/31/2020 - 10:03am

"...for not doing her homework..." is a misnomer.
She was sent to detention for a probation violation.
I highly doubt if anyone would be sent to detention just for not doing homework.

Judge must go!
Fri, 07/31/2020 - 5:10pm

Yeah, she overslept.