No, a Michigan teenager was not jailed for not doing her homework

It's a crowded field of nominees for this year's Michael Brown Hands Up Don't Shoot Award, but the pitiful tale of the Michigan teenager thrown in jail for being black and not doing her homework at least deserves an honorable mention.

ProPublica launched this invention a couple weeks ago in a lengthy story, summed up in its arresting but utterly dishonest headline, "A Teenager Didn't Do Her Online Schoolwork. So a Judge Sent Her to Juvenile Detention."

According to the fable, 15-year old Grace (not her real name) was sentenced to a juvenile detention center by Oakland County circuit judge Mary Ellen Brennan only because Grace is black, our criminal justice system is "broken," and Brennan is "callous."  Worse, the pandemic made it Grace's death sentence, despite there not being a single COVID case reported in the juvenile home.

The national media have reported this lie in lockstep ever since.  What kind of monster sentences a "baby" to incarceration and certain death from COVID-19 just because she didn't do her homework? 

Everyone from Ayanna Pressley to Hillary Clinton has leapt at the chance to exploit the myth and toss in a few lies of their own. 

Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and a handful of other Democrat rabble-rousers sent a congressional letter to Attorney General Bill Barr and education secretary Betsy DeVos demanding a civil rights investigation of Judge Brennan's decision.  The letter says the judge cited Grace's mere failure to complete her online coursework "as the definitive reason for sentencing Grace to juvenile detention" and that someone with Grace's ADHD and other issues "should never be criminalized for her lack of participation in an online learning program."


The truth is that Judge Brennan's stated reason for sending Grace to juvenile detention wasn't failure to do her coursework, but that Grace was a "'threat to [the] community,'" as shown, among other things, by "the assault and theft charges that led to her probation."  And Grace didn't need to be "criminalized" by Judge Brennan for skipping online school; she criminalized herself by committing crimes. 

Last month, when Judge Brennan revoked Grace's probation for her numerous violations of its conditions, she took into account Grace's stealing, "incorrigibility," and "several-year history of trouble that includes physical violence against her mother."

Fact check: Probation isn't a make-up test or referral to the school counselor's office.  It's a sentence.  The burden is on you to prove that the community is safe with you in it.

For years, Grace has been battling with her mother over typical teenage things; like not wanting to clean her room, ignoring her homework; and her mother's attempts to curb "her use of the phone, social media and other technology."  But since age 13, the fights got so bad that Grace's mother often had to call police for help.  Afterward, as is common with victims of family violence, she would minimize her daughter's outbursts.

Grace's first criminal charge came in 2018 after an argument over swiping her mother's iPhone charger, a fight so bad that police showed up.  When they arrived, they discovered that Grace, as coyly reported by ProPublica, "had taken an iPad from her middle school without permission," resulting in her being charged with larceny.  In court, Grace impressed the judge as intractable, but her mother begged that her daughter be put into a "diversion" program, sparing her detention if she agreed to get counseling and stay off electronic devices.

In November 2019, a neighbor heard Grace's mother honking her car horn and screaming, "Help me!" and called police.  ProPublica reports that "Grace, upset she couldn't go to a friend's house, had reached inside the car to try to get her mother's phone and had bitten her mother's finger and pulled her hair."  The police released Grace to a friend's house to cool off, but an assault charge was filed.  A few weeks later, she picked up a second larceny charge for stealing another kid's cell phone from school.

This past April, Grace pleaded no contest to domestic violence for assaulting her mother and pleaded guilty to larceny for the cell phone theft.  Judge Brennan, aware of the pandemic and trying her best to keep the teenager out of detention, ordered "intense probation," stressing that it would be "zero-tolerance."  The conditions required Grace to check in regularly with her caseworker, "no phone and the use of the school laptop for educational purposes only."  The judge also ordered that Grace wear a GPS tether, which shows how confident she was that Grace — who had well proven her "incorrigibility" — was going to hold up "her end of the bargain."

She didn't.  She complained to her caseworker about being overwhelmed by everything that was expected of her.  Her schoolwork didn't get done because she forgot to plug her computer in, and she overslept because "her alarm didn't go off."  Her mother told the caseworker, "Grace had been staying up late to make food and going on the internet, then sleeping in."

Again, typical harmless, teenage behavior.  But typical harmless 15-year-olds don't have three convictions on their record and a tether on their ankle to remind them that goofing off could lead to a stay in juvey.  The caseworker noted that Grace "clearly doesn't want to abide by the rules in the community" and asked the judge to put Grace in detention.  Judge Brennan agreed.

In fact, Grace was making great progress in the juvenile home and was due to go home in only a few weeks. 

But then the wails went up, and the headlines ran, objecting that only black people get treated this way, and there was "no justification" for Grace's detention.  But it was justified, and only one local newspaper had the courage to report that "no evidence has emerged to justify claims of racial injustice."

Now the Michigan Court of Appeals has ordered her release, and Grace's lawyers doubt she'll have to go back.  The opportunists and grandstanders who've used her for their own purposes have done Grace and her mother no favors.  We can hope that Grace and her mother can manage this time, but with nothing really changed, it doesn't seem likely.  

Judge Brennan revoked Grace's probation sincere that if she was ever going to mature enough to stay out of adult prison, she'd need help for her uncontrolled temper, for her choices of violence and theft as the way to get what she wants, and to teach her that actions have consequences. 

But thanks to the Court of Appeals, the phony protests, and the fake news, the lesson is loud and clear that actions don't have consequences.  And lying works.

T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan.  You can email him at

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