Black Michigan student sent to juvenile detention for failure to complete online coursework

Dive Brief:

  • A 15-year-old Black girl in Michigan was placed in juvenile detention on the grounds that she violated her probation by not completing online coursework when her school switched to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, fueling discussion of systemic racial bias, ProPublica reports.
  • Judge Mary Ellen Brennan cited prior assault and theft charges when describing the student as a “threat to (the) community” while finding her “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school,” but attorneys and advocates say they’ve seen no other case involving a minor being detained for failing to complete academic requirements amid school shutdowns. A March executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer temporarily suspended incarceration of juveniles violating probation through late May unless by court order or them being deemed a “substantial and immediate safety risk to others.”
  • Experts have also pointed out that the local community is predominantly white and the county has a disproportionate percentage of young Black people in the juvenile justice system, raising concerns of systemic racial bias. Further fueling the issue is that the student has ADHD, and students with special needs have been recognized as particularly at risk during remote learning.

Dive Insight:

Students who enter the juvenile justice system are often locked into a cycle of recidivism in which they’re at higher risk of falling behind, misbehaving again and eventually dropping out all. In many cases, this also leads to their entry into the adult justice system as they fall through the cracks and find themselves with very few options.

This phenomena has come to be described as the school-to-prison pipeline, and it predominantly impacts students of color and those with special needs. These students are typically already at risk to begin with due to a variety of factors that include socioeconomics and punitive zero-tolerance school discipline approaches that level harsher punishments for minor infractions.

A report released last year by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights added further credence, finding that school data indicates students of color are overrepresented in discipline data and receive more exclusionary forms of punishment than their white peers. Exclusionary practices in particular have been linked to school avoidance, increased dropout risk, and increased chance students end up in the juvenile court system.

Among recommendations were providing teachers with resources, guidance, training and support on nondiscriminatory discipline, as well as Congressional approval of funds to incentivize states to provide enough counselors and social workers.

​A number of states and individual districts nationwide have made progress on their in the adoption of alternative approaches to discipline like restorative justice and positive behavioral intervention systems, though adopting these models takes considerable planning and resources. 

A Pittsburgh Public Schools program implemented between the 2015 and 2017 school years saw the number of days elementary and Black students were suspended decline significantly, while a Los Angeles Unified School District ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” led to a 75% overall drop in suspensions and less racial disparity.

For those students already in the juvenile justice system, experts say ensuring they have the resources to catch up and making the effort to address underlying causes for misbehavior, in addition to reevaluating existing discipline policies, are crucial to setting them on the right path.

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