Protesters march in support of Oakland Co. teen detained over missed schoolwork

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Marching from Oakland County's courthouse to the Children’s Village on Sunday, about 50 protesters held a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of a 15-year-old girl detained there since May for failing to complete class assignments.

“We’re here today because we know we have to make a difference,” said Angelique Strong Marks, an organizer of the protest. “So after we leave here today, there’s more work to be done, right? We have resolutions that we’ve come to asking community groups to organize with us so we can dismantle the school to prison pipeline so that little 15-year-old Black girls who may have problems get the right mental health treatment.”

The protest Sunday comes after ProPublica last week reported that a student at Groves High School in Beverly Hills, referred to as "Grace," was detained in May after she did not complete her assignments after the school switched to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The report said the student has ADHD and receives special education services.

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.

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 the assault and theft charges, ProPublica reported. It has also reported that Brennan has agreed to reconsider the student's detention. A court hearing is set for Monday. 

The student’s detention outraged both parents and students who attended the demonstration on Sunday, as they called for the end of racial disparity regarding youth involved in the Oakland County Juvenile Justice System.

Protesters held signs and chanted "No justice. No peace." and "What do we want? To free Grace! Why are we here? To free Grace!"

Protest organizers, from left, Monique Campbell of Southfield and Tylene Henry of Beverly Hills lead chanting near Children's Village in Pontiac on Sunday. The protest is in support of the effort to free a 15-year-old girl detained at Children's Village for not completing online schoolwork.

Among the protesters was Nia Dawsey, a 17-year-old senior at Groves High School. Dawsey said she doesn’t know the girl personally, but she believes she’s been wronged by the justice system.

“They will call us a threat to the community for not completing homework during a pandemic, and they will continue to do so if we don’t demand complete change,” she said. “We cannot fix a system that was never meant to benefit us so we need blatant change.”

Dawsey said she plans to continue to show her support for students by leading a sit-in on the steps of the courthouse set for Wednesday morning.

A petition asking for the students had more than 53,000 signatures as of Sunday. The hashtag #FreeGrace on Twitter is also drawing attention to the case.

“To think that a young girl could be put into the system for not doing her homework is outrageous,” said Tiffany Tilley, a member of the State Board of Education as she stood with others outside the gated Children's Village, where the teen is housed.

“Ten years old, 12 years old, 15 years old is too young to determine what somebody could be in life. Yes, that young lady may have made some bad choices, but she needs a chance. She needs an opportunity and putting her away because of homework is not the way. We need to stop this pipeline to the prison system that they have in America for us, which is another form of slavery. We need to give that young lady hope.”

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

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

LaKeya Martin, executive director of Southfield-based Autism Support Services Center, said she attended the protest Sunday to denounce the detention.

“You don’t know or understand how her situation was at home," Martin said. "Did she need those educational supports at home? If the school had done more, she wouldn’t be here.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN