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  • By Lisa Brody

Condemnations for incarcerated BPS student

A Black female Groves student whose story was profiled by ProPublica after she was incarcerated for not doing her schoolwork during the coronavirus lockdown has raised questions regarding the appropriate use of juvenile detention, prosecutorial and judicial discretion and systemic racism in the judicial system, and led to the Birmingham Public Schools district to call for a review of the case. Now, the Michigan Supreme Court said they are reviewing the circumstances which led to the 15-year-old girl to be held in an Oakland County detention site since mid-May, rather than at home with her mother, after she violated her parole by not doing her online homework during the coronavirus pandemic. Also, one of the attorneys for the student filed a motion in court yesterday challenging the judge's decision on incarceration. According to the ProPublica story, written by Jodi S. Cohen and published on July 14, Grace (a pseudonym), was a high school sophomore at Groves High School when she was charged with assault against her mother and a theft at school last year. She was placed on probation in mid-April and, among other requirements, was to complete her schoolwork. “Grace, who has ADHD and receives special education services, struggled with the transition to online learning and fell behind. Finding the girl had violated probation, an Oakland County judge on May 14 sentenced her to detention,” wrote Cohen. “After spending the initial weeks in secure detention at the Children’s Village juvenile detention center in suburban Detroit, Grace is now in a residential treatment program at the facility. Grace and her mother, who have been allowed many phone calls but only three visits during the past two months, have pleaded with the judge to allow her to go home.” Local, county, state and federal authorities have condemned Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan's decision to incarcerate the teen rather than demand home confinement, psychological treatment or other remediation. Her sentence came at the same time the legal and educational communities had urged leniency due to the Covid-19 situation and a prioritization of children's health and safety. John Nevin, communications director, Michigan Supreme Court, said in a statement issued Thursday, July 16, “The State Court Administrative Office is working with the Oakland Circuit Court to examine the processes in this case.” Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education held a special meeting on Thursday, July 16, and unanimously passed a resolution calling for a judicial review of the case, as well as committing to restorative practices, where the district said they are “committed to working with each of our students to benefit their academic and personal growth, and endorses and employs restorative justice practices and measures designed to help students no matter their race, ethnicity, ability or academic standing, and celebrates its diverse student population and values each and every child in the learning process.” The board said it has adopted a goal for the 2020-2021 academic year to “have meaningful discussions in a series of public meetings regarding the ways that BPS is and could be working to eradicate racism and create more equitable and inclusive schools.” Birmingham Public Schools spokesperson Anne Cron stated they are unable to speak about individual students as they are bound by privacy constraints. In a statement, the district said, “Birmingham Public Schools staff and administrators have a deep commitment to working with each of our students to benefit their academic and personal growth. The concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion have been foundations of the school district’s work and will continue to provide a foundation for our school improvement in the future. Birmingham Public Schools stands by its commitment that no child within our district should face consequences for lack of participation, incomplete assignments or missed work due to the sudden and required online continuity of learning plans that took place this pastschool year due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. From its inception, the BPS plan sought to hold students harmless given the challenging, virtual learning environment they were thrust in due to no fault of their own. The district maintains that belief today. While this issue was highlighted in a recent news story, Birmingham Public Schools is not a party to the court proceeding discussed. We are unable to share any further detail about the case – either because those details are unknown to us or they fall under student privacy regulations to which we are bound.” “As Beverly Hills’ representative in the U.S. House Representatives and the proud dad of four Birmingham Public School kids, including two Groves High School graduates, I am deeply disturbed by the decision of a Michigan circuit judge to sentence a Black high school student to confinement in a juvenile detention facility for the apparent crime of not doing her online coursework. This punitive sentence has unnecessarily separated a child from her mother during a global pandemic and put both at risk,” said Congressman Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) in a statement. “From publicly available information, the case to detain this student has serious deficiencies. The prosecution’s only witness was unaware of the student’s learning disabilities. Witnesses who could have provided a better understanding of the situation, like the student’s teachers, were unable to testify. Moreover, the infraction that sent this student to juvenile detention was trivial. I am saddened to have to state the obvious: We should not be locking up children for not doing their homework. “Unfortunately, this case is reflective of the harsh penalties children of color face throughout Michigan and the United States when dealing with the criminal justice system. In our state, Black children are incarcerated at four times the rate of white children. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is tragic to see the criminal justice system follow Black youth into their homes. Now more than ever we need to sever the school-to-prison pipeline that is denying students of color in Michigan the freedom and success they deserve.” Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said, “I spoke with the judge this evening. While there are many more details that she is unable to share with me and the public to protect privacy of the minor and their family, I believe a review of this case within her court or during an appellate process is required. It has been a top priority of my administration to keep the young people and employees safe at Children’s Village during the pandemic and that includes limiting residency to immediate safety risks.” “Oakland Schools shares the community’s deep concern and outrage over the recent action taken against a Birmingham Schools’ student by the court system,” said Oakland Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson. “We firmly believe that no student should be punished for not completing online school work during this unprecedented pandemic. We stand ready to support Birmingham Public Schools in any way to ensure an equitable academic and social emotional environment as we welcome back all students.”

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