Court Frees Michigan Teen Who Was Held for Skipping Online Schoolwork

The Michigan Court of Appeals on Friday freed a 15-year-old suburban Detroit girl whose detention at a juvenile facility drew widespread criticism after a county judge ordered that she be held for failing to complete her online schoolwork.

After the court granted an emergency order, the girl, who is being called Grace to protect her identity, was released immediately into the custody of her mother. She had been held since May.

Jonathan Biernat and Saima Khalil, lawyers for Grace, said in an interview on Friday afternoon that the pair were on their way home.

“We weren’t expecting anything today,” Mr. Biernat said. “We asked that they review it by Monday, but we’re so thankful that Grace is going home.”

The case, which was reported by ProPublica, immediately drew condemnation.

The release came more than a week after an Oakland County Circuit Court judge ruled that the teenager, who violated the terms of her probation by skipping coursework when her school switched to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, should remain at the juvenile facility. The judge said the decision was intended for the girl’s own good.

“I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be,” Judge Mary Ellen Brennan said to the girl, who is Black. “You are blooming there, but there is more work to be done.”

The judge said that the police had been called three times over confrontations between the girl and her mother, adding that “she was detained because she was a threat to her mother.”

But the teenager was not placed in detention or incarcerated after any of those previous encounters, a lawyer for Grace told The Times last week. One of the girl’s lawyers said she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and received special education services, which made it difficult for her to shift to online education.

The girl had been on probation after she pulled her mother’s hair and bit her finger in November, the judge said. The police referred the case to the Oakland County court, and an assault charge was filed against the girl. A few weeks later, she was charged with larceny after she was caught on surveillance video stealing a cellphone from a fellow student at Birmingham Groves High School in Beverly Hills, northwest of Detroit, according to ProPublica.

The Oakland County prosecutor, Jessica Cooper, said the girl had a long history of behavioral issues, including domestic violence toward her mother. She said the girl’s mother was the one who notified the caseworker that her daughter was not in compliance with the conditions of her probation. On May 14, according to ProPublica, Judge Brennan ordered that Grace be detained after she found her to be in violation of her probation.

On Friday, Ms. Khalil, one of the teenager’s lawyers, praised the teenager’s mother as a “hands-on mom,” and a single parent who “always seeks out the best for her and that is commendable.”

Lamenting the trauma that Grace and her mother have “endured because of Judge Brennan’s decision to throw her into detention,” she emphasized that the two “were not separated before.”

“This should have never happened,” Ms. Khalil said, but noted the national spotlight on the case was “forcing a conversation to happen about juvenile justice issues. It’s a conversation we need to have about mental health issues.”

Jenny Gross contributed reporting.

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