(Not) Learning While Black During COVID-19 Can Mean Jail

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Jul 16, 2020

Colorlines previously reported that practicing social distance and proper hygiene while in legal confinement is nearly impossible, but that didn’t stop a judge in Michigan from putting a 15-year-old Black girl in Detroit’s Children’s Village juvenile detention center in May for “not completing her online coursework when her school in Beverly Hills switched to remote learning,” ProPublica, in collaboration with the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Magazine, reported on July 14.

Reminder: COVID-19 is still real and so is the fact that Black children are still five times more likely to be detained than white kids, according to The Sentencing Project.

The over-policing, detainment and incarceration of Black youth has kept advocates up at night for decades, but the pandemic is yet another reason to keep kids out of carceral state custody. (As of ProPublica’s publishing date, the 15-year-old had already been detained for a month.) First of all, not all students can partake in remote learning, because of computer or internet connection issues—60 to 70 percent said they regularly logged in—and distance learning is so hard for some that 6.5 percent for Latinx and 5.5 percent Black students are expected to drop out of high school altogether as a result of COVID-19, McKinsey and Company reported in June.  

“Who can even be a good student right now?” Ricky Watson Jr., executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, asked ProPublica. “Unless there is an urgent need, I don’t understand why you would be sending a kid to any facility right now and taking them away from their families with all that we are dealing with right now.”

In March, the state’s governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order to temporarily suspend the confinement of juveniles who violate probation unless “directed by a court order” and encouraged residential placement “to reduce the risk that those at their facilities will be exposed to COVID-19,” unless they pose an “immediate safety risk to others,” according to the order.

But as ProPublica reported, Whitmer’s order, which extended to late May, gave the state’s juvenile court judges—including family court judge Mary Ellen, who detained the 15-year-old for not logging in—the power to determine who gets to go home. Instead, Ellen reportedly found the teenager  “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school.” 

For now, after much backlash, Time Magazine reported on July 15 that Judge Ellen’s determination is under review. “While there are many more details that she is unable to share with me and the public to protect the privacy of the minor and their family, I believe a review of this case within her court or during an appellate process is required,” Oakland County executive David Coulter said in a statement, according to Time

ProPublica reported on July 15, that after more than 25,000 people petitioned with #FreeGrace, via Change.org and Twitter, a new attorney plans to file a motion today (July 16) asking the judge to send her home.