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Birmingham school board seeks review of teen's detention

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Birmingham — The Oakland County school district for a 15-year-old girl detained at Children's Village for not completing online schoolwork joined calls Thursday for a court review of her case.

The board of Birmingham Public Schools unanimously approved a resolution calling for the review, saying no student should face consequences for lack of participation, incomplete assignments or missed work due to COVID-19.

"The Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education asks the court to review the case before it involving one of its students," the resolution states. "The Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education reiterates its deep belief that no harm should come to its students as a result of the sudden shift to online learning ..."

The resolution said the district "is committed to work with the court system at the court’s discretion/direction to apply restorative justice practices in the best interest of this student" and called for a task force to be formed with police, educators and court system officials "to take bold action to address student equity issues as they relate to race, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status or background."

Also Thursday, state court officials announced they were reviewing the case.

“The State Court Administrative Office is working with the Oakland Circuit Court to examine the processes in this case,” said John Nevin, a spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court.

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.

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, 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