Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Andy Levin and Michigan Lawmakers Call on Barr & DeVos to Intervene in Case of 15-Year-Old Girl Incarcerated for Lack of Participation in Online Learning

July 29, 2020
Press Release
Lawmakers urge Department of Education to open civil rights investigation and Department of Justice to immediately review court decision.

Text of letter

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and Reps. Andy Levin (MI-09),  Reps. Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Brenda Lawrence (MI-14), Haley Stevens (MI-11), and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13) urged Attorney General William Barr and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to intervene in the case of Grace, a 15-year-old Michigan student from Rep. Levin’s district who was sentenced to juvenile detention for her lack of participation in online learning.

“We write to you with grave concern about the recent court decision in Michigan that sentenced a 15-year-old girl to juvenile detention in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” write the lawmakers. “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. 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 detention. This is unacceptable.”

In May, a Michigan judge sentenced Grace to juvenile detention on a probation violation, despite an executive order issued by Michigan Governor 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.

“As previously expressed to the Department of Justice, Congress has persistent concerns about congregate settings including nursing homes, detention centers and prisons that are not equipped to manage the COVID-19 crisis,” the lawmakers continued. “Tragically we have already seen those behind the wall, in detention centers and in nursing homes across the nation lose their lives as COVID-19 has rapidly spread through these facilities.”

Across the nation, 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. Black girls are 7 times more likely to be suspended from school and 4 times more likely to be arrested at school, compared to white girls. Even as early as preschool, where Black girls make up only 20 percent of all girls enrolled in school, they make up more than half of all out of school suspensions. Black girls with disabilities, like Grace, are disproportionately suspended at even higher rates. In 2012, Black girls made up 12 percent of all girls suspended from school. Black girls with disabilities represented nearly 1 in 4 girls with disabilities that were suspended. These stark disparities in exclusionary discipline persist.

“While this case points to deeply entrenched systemic issues,” the lawmakers wrote, “Grace’s case is the first publicly reported incident where a judge has cited a lack of online school participation as grounds for incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, cases like this could present threats to students’ protected IDEA rights as well as circumvent the obligation to provide free, appropriate public education. School districts have documented tens of thousands of students who failed to log in or complete their schoolwork across the nation. Particularly as schools ready for the upcoming academic year, we must be clear that our children should be provided with additional supports and services, they should not be criminalized for their lack of engagement in online instruction. We must intervene now to address this dangerous precedent that would disproportionately harm Black and brown students and students with disabilities.”

In the letter, the lawmakers demanded a response from the Departments no later than August 7, 2020. Inspired by the outcry over this case, this week Rep. Levin became a cosponsor of Rep. Pressley’s Ending PUSHOUT Act, legislation to end the criminalization and overly punitive discipline practices that pushout girls of color from schools and to disrupt the school-to-confinement pathway.

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