A Michigan teenager on probation for stealing a classmate’s cellphone has now been incarcerated on suspicion of the grievous crimes of sleeping in during the pandemic and falling behind on schoolwork, a move that, should it set precedent for all children, would see nearly every teenager in America incarcerated by Thanksgiving.
The 15-year-old high school sophomore, identified by ProPublica using only her middle name, Grace, was originally taken into custody for biting her mother’s finger in an argument. A few weeks later, was charged with theft after being caught on video stealing a cell phone from her school’s locker room, behaviors that are at once less than desirable but not out of line with the sort of rash decisions made by impulsive young humans whose frontal cortexes have not yet finished developing.
Grace’s main crime, however, seems to be the fact that she is Black in a predominately white Michigan suburb. While Judge Mary Ellen Brennan sentenced her to probation for the first two offenses in May the judge incarcerated Grace after the child’s mother, in a moment of frustration, told a caseworker that she had gone back to sleep after a morning check-in rather than beginning her schoolwork. While this might be the first case of a student being incarcerated for failure to do homework during covid-19 school shutdowns, outsized punishments for Black children are unfortunately standard throughout the country. In Michigan, for example, Black teenagers are incarcerated at four times the rate of their white peers.
According to ProPublica, Grace’s struggles in school are also not uncommon. Schools across the country have reported that tens of thousands of students nationwide have fallen behind on the remote-learning schoolwork necessitated by covid-19 precautions, many citing difficulties staying motivated without classroom instruction or even a physical learning environment. In Grace’s case, the special-needs student had asked her teacher for one-on-one help the day after her caseworker reported her for violating probation.
And though Grace had been participating in therapy sessions and had stayed out of trouble until she was reported for the crime of being sleepy, Judge Brennan sent her to the Children’s Village juvenile detention center outside Detroit until her sentence is revisited in September. (Grace has been held at Children’s Village for more than two months and has only been allowed three visits with her mother.) There, the child who overslept is shackled before virtual court hearings, meets less regularly with a therapist than she did while living with her mother, and has yet to meet with a teacher either in-person or online.
In an April hearing, Brennan admonished Grace by telling her that “Most people go through their entire youth without having the cops have to come to their house because they can’t get themselves together.” That’s true, though most teenagers also fight with their parents and siblings and briefly experiment with shoplifting, so it’s almost as if there is a double standard where behaviors are normalized for white children and grounds for incarceration for Black children. Grace, on the other hand, appears to have a much better grasp on the brutal unfairness of the situation than the concerned white lady with the gavel:
“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 told the judge in the same hearing. “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 on our progress.”