Black teenager incarcerated for two months for not doing her homework

Joanna Taylor
Wednesday 15 July 2020 06:30
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( Ian Waldie / Getty Images )

A Black teenage girl was sent to a juvenile detention centre for not completing her online schoolwork during the coronavirus pandemic and has now been locked up for two months.

The 15-year-old was taken to the Children's Village juvenile centre in Detroit after it was determined that failing to complete her coursework was a violation of her probation in mid-May.

The teenager was placed on probation for fighting with her mother and stealing a phone from a classmate after hers was confiscated.

She lives in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Michigan where people of colour are sent to juvenile detention centres in disproportionately high numbers.

Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, the presiding judge at the Oakland County Family Court, found the teenager of being "guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school" and called her a "threat to the community".

She added:

She hasn’t fulfilled the expectation with regard to school performance. I told her she was on thin ice and I told her that I was going to hold her to the letter, to the order, of the probation.

Failing to submit schoolwork is not, of course, illegal, and nor is it particularly unusual: in Minnesota, for instance, a third of high school children failed to complete their online work before schools reopened.

On top of this, the teenager reportedly has ADHD which made it harder to concentrate on her work without the guidance of her teachers.

The teenager has currently been at the Children's Village for more than two months as coronavirus continues to spread throughout the US.

The fact that she was sent to a juvenile detention centre simply for failing to keep up with her schoolwork in the middle of a pandemic has raised questions about systemic racism in the US justice system.

The number of children being admitted to such centres fell by almost a quarter in March across the US as judges tried to protect children from the virus.

But for this Black teenager, simply struggling at school was enough to re-expose her to the system.

This case was uncovered by investigative newspaper ProPublica, the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine.

In response to a request for comment, an Oakland Family Court spokesperson said:

Judicial canon prohibits judges and courts from commenting regarding an ongoing case. However, the court can provide information regarding how cases are processed and how judges make their decisions. 

Family court judges make decisions based on the law and a wide range of advice and information. […] To reduce this deliberate and thoughtful process to a catchy phrase is a disservice to all concerned parties, to the public, and to the professionals who are dedicated to helping children and families. 

[…] 

Family court judges have one criterion that must be followed - to make decisions that are in the best interest of the child and the family. This decision is not influenced by race, by income, by ethnicity, or any other variable. 

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