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U.S. reps urge Barr, DeVos to act in detained teen's case

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Six members of Congress are calling on Attorney General William Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to intervene in the case of Grace, a 15-year-old Michigan student who was sentenced to juvenile detention for allegedly not doing her online school work.

Attorney General William Barr

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, along with U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, wrote a letter Thursday to Barr and DeVos urging them to help the teen, whose case made national news when she was sent to a detention facility after failing to do schoolwork during the pandemic.

 "A child who is grappling with the stress of an unprecedented pandemic, coupled with a history of mental health issues and living with disabilities should never be criminalized for her lack of participation in an online learning program," the letter said.

"While Grace has faced many personal challenges in her young life, it was her lack of completion in online classes that the judge cited as the definitive reason for sentencing Grace to juvenile detention. This is unacceptable.”

In May, Oakland Circuit Judge Mary Ellen Brennan sentenced Grace to juvenile detention on a probation violation, despite an executive order issued by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suspending detention for most juveniles in light of the COVID-19 crisis, which has spread rapidly in prisons and jails across the country.

In their letter, lawmakers said Congress has persistent concerns about congregate settings including nursing homes, detention centers and prisons that are not equipped to manage the COVID 19 crisis.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

They also said the education of Black girls is "often disrupted as a result of discriminatory and overly punitive discipline policies that criminalize and push them out of school." Grace is Black.

The teen's incarceration could threaten her protected federal disability rights as well as circumvent the obligation to provide free, appropriate public education, the letter said.

The lawmakers are seeking a response to their letter by Aug. 7.

On July 20, Brennan ruled Grace was a threat to her mother and should complete her course of treatment, denying a motion for early release.

jchambers@detroitnews.com