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Pressure mounts to free 15-year-old Black girl imprisoned for not doing homework

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Public pressure is mounting to free a 15-year-old Black girl sent to Oakland County juvenile detention for not doing her homework.

The girl is known only by her middle name, Grace. She was on probation for some minor offenses, such as fighting with her mother and taking another child's iPad.

In May, Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan incarcerated Grace for violating probation. Her crime: failing to do her online schoolwork for Birmingham Groves High School.

Update: Saturday, July 18, 2020 at 4:32 p.m.

Grace's attorney, Jonathan Biernat, filed a motion on Thursday asking Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan to reconsider Grace's detention. According to ProPublica,Brennan has agreed, and a court hearing is set for Monday. Oakland County prosecutors have until July 24 to respond to Biernat's request to reconsider the case.

An arm of the Michigan Supreme Court also said this week that it will review the handling of Grace's case. The State Court Administrative Office, which has administrative oversight of all state courts, "is working with the Oakland County Circuit Court to examine the processes in this case," according to a statement issued by spokesman John Nevin.

Original post: Friday, July 17, 2020 11:45 a.m.  

The case has sparked national outrage, and a growing chorus of voices ranging from online petitions to members of Congress are demanding that Brennan free Grace, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. So far, Brennan has declined to comment on the case.

Supporters rallied for Grace outside the Oakland County Courthouse on Thursday, following a caravan from Groves High School. They say the case is an extreme example of how the justice system harshly punishes Black children for trivial offenses. They also point out that even schools are not penalizing children who are struggling with online schoolwork.

Kai Mills spoke at the Thursday protest. She’s a special education teacher who does not know Grace. But she said the girl should never have been punished at all for not completing assignments.

Grace has ADHD, and what’s known as an Individualized Education Plan. Mills says that under federal law, Grace has a right to certain accommodations.

“This is a direct violation of her rights,” Mills said. “This is a blatant trail from the school to prison pipeline. There’s no exceptions, no excuses. Grace should be freed.”

Cherisie Evans is with the group Michigan Liberation. She said protesters are demanding “accountability” from Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, and all the adults who had a hand in incarcerating Grace.

Evans, who said she was labeled as a special needs student, believes the entire system failed Grace. “Once they label you this way, that’s it,” she said. “It’s like they throw you in a corner and forget about you.”

“This issue is bigger than Grace. It’s for all the Graces that’s out there. And we’re going to get justice.”

Evans and other protesters questioned whether the judge would have been so harsh with Grace if she were a white child.

Grace’s mother is fighting for her release. The girl’s new attorney, Jonathan Biernat, told ProPublica this week that he would file a motion requesting that on Thursday. Michigan Radio could not immediately reach Biernat for comment.

Update 7/18/2020 2:35 p.m.: This article has been updated to note that Grace has been incarcerated since May. A previous version incorrectly stated that happened in June.

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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