District of teen detained over missed schoolwork says no child should face consequences during COVID

Birmingham — The Oakland County school district for a 15-year-old girl detained at Children’s Village for not completing online schoolwork says no student should face consequences for lack of participation, incomplete assignments or missed work due to COVID-19.

Birmingham Public Schools issued a statement Thursday noting while federal student privacy laws prevent discussing the student who was sent to the juvenile facility in May for a violating her probation by not completing her schoolwork, the district stands by its commitment that no student face consequences due to the “sudden and required” online learning due to the global pandemic.

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“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,” district spokeswoman Anne Cron said.

“While this issue was highlighted in a recent news story, Birmingham Public Schools is not a party to the court proceeding discussed,” Cron said. “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.”

ProPublica.org first reported the girl was placed in the facility for juvenile offenders in May after failing to complete class assignments from Groves High School in Beverly Hills after the school switched to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan of Oakland County Family Court ruled the girl was “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” and called her a “threat to (the) community” because she was on probation for assault and theft charges, ProPublica reported.

Cron said the school board is holding a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Thursday that can be viewed online. Members are expected to discuss a resolution on restorative practices that are “designed to help students no matter their race, ethnicity, ability or academic standing,” according to the district statement.

The case of the Michigan student has generated the hashtag #FreeGrace on Twitter and a Change.org petition asking for her release. The petition had more than 33,000 signatures as of Thursday.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, issued a statement on the case said he was “deeply disturbed” by the decision of the judge to sentence the student to confinement 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,” Levin said in a statement. 

“From publicly available information, the case to detain this student has serious deficiencies,” Levin said. “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.”

Levin said the case is reflective of the harsh penalties children of color face throughout Michigan and the United States when dealing with the criminal justice system. He called on the court to review the case and bring the teen home to her mother.

“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,” Levin said.

On Tuesday, Oakland County Executive David Coulter also asked for a court to review the decision to place the 15-year-old girl in Children’s Village for probation violation.

“I spoke with the judge this evening,” Coulter said in a written statement. “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.”

The girl was reportedly charged with assault after a Nov. 6 incident in which she allegedly bit her mother and pulled her hair, and with larceny weeks later after allegedly stealing a fellow student’s cellphone.

On Wednesday, Oakland Schools Superintendent Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson issued a statement in support of the student, saying her office shares the community’s deep concern and outrage over the recent action taken against her by the county court system.

“We firmly believe that no student should be punished for not completing online school work during this unprecedented pandemic,” Cook-Robinson said. “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.”

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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