Grace’s Story

Facebook Twitter More...

Author: Katie Dodds is a CJJ Communications Intern for Summer 2020

News reports that a teen girl (being referred to in the media by her middle name, Grace, to protect her identity) was locked up for failing to complete her online coursework in the midst of COVID-19 have incited massive public outrage and sparked a much-needed national conversation on youth justice and mental health. 

This story broke at a time when many jurisdictions across the country are preparing to begin their 2020-2021 school years, many of them only in a remote capacity, and many others in a partial remote capacity. This case is an illustration of the longstanding need to connect young people who have engaged in status offense behaviors (behaviors like truancy that would not be criminal if committed by an adult) and other low-level behaviors with services and supports rather than incarceration.

In May, a judge ordered that Grace, a Black 15-year-old from outside Detroit, be held in a detention facility for six months after violating her probation on earlier assault and theft charges by not keeping up with her online schoolwork. 

Grace reportedly receives special education services at school due to her diagnosis with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a mood disorder. According to Grace, she had difficulty with the pandemic-necessitated transition to online school because without in-person instruction, she lacked the structure and accountability she needed to keep herself focused and on-track. Ironically, although Grace was punished by institutionalization after falling behind on her schoolwork, Grace has found that the educational services she is receiving within the correctional system are inferior and “beneath [her] level of education.” 

Protests ensued after Oakland County Judge Mary Ellen Brennan’s ruling sentencing Grace to detention; hundreds of Detroit-area students turned out for protests outside Grace’s high school and Oakland County’s Circuit Court. Petitions demanding Grace’s release amassed impressive public support, and Twitter and other social media users flooded the internet with #FreeGrace messages. Detroit’s juvenile court system as a whole has been accused of systemic racial bias, with Grace’s mother and experts asserting that Grace’s case is a reflection of this discrimination. 

In response to this criticism, Judge Brennan defended her decision to sentence Grace to lockup, doubling down that “[Grace] was not detained because she didn’t turn her homework in… She was detained because she was a threat to her mother,” citing Grace’s initial assault charge following an altercation with her mother. But neither Grace nor her mother agreed with this argument of Brennan’s or her ruling. A heartbreaking letter Grace wrote to her mother from detention went viral, in which Grace wrote about her transition to life in a detention facility. She disclosed in the emotional letter: “I miss you a lot and being here is hard,” and “I pray every night for God to take your loneliness away and replace it with hope.” 

In July, an appeals court finally ordered Grace’s release after she had served 78 days, and she was returned to the custody of her mother. Grace’s release from detention is great news, but we as a nation can’t let ourselves forget her story just because it eventually had a happy ending. It is appalling to think that something like this could even happen, and we must ensure that it never happens again. We need to embrace this unique opportunity for a public reckoning with the purpose and function of the juvenile justice system, and reflect on how we want mental health issues to be taken into account during sentencing. Grace is not unique as a youth with mental health concerns involved with the juvenile justice system; in fact, it has been suggested that at certain stages in the juvenile justice system, as many as 70% of youth have diagnosable mental health problems. Many of these cases would be more-appropriately addressed by mental health treatment from trained professionals.

Grace’s story should serve as an important reminder that detention of young people should always be a last resort. It’s also a call to action to end the systemic racism that plagues the entire justice system and to sustain the social-justice momentum sparked by this and other recent events. In this new Covid era, it also highlights the important need for a clear definition of how truancy and other related laws will be applied in online settings. Let’s not forget Grace’s story.

Read a more-detailed account of Grace’s story here:


Chavez, Julio-Cesar, and Emily Elconin. “Protests in Michigan after Student Jailed for Not Doing Online Schoolwork.” Edited by Heather Timmons and Aurora Ellis, Reuters, Reuters, 16 July 2020,   

Cohen, Jodi S. “A Teenager Didn’t Do Her Online Schoolwork. So a Judge Sent Her to Juvenile Detention.” ProPublica Illinois, Pro Publica Inc., 14 July 2020,

Development Services Group, Inc. 2017. “Intersection Between Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System.” Literature review. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Jurado, Joe. “Judge Denies Release for 15-Year-Old Detained for Not Doing Homework.” The Root, G/O Media Inc., 21 July 2020,

LeBlanc, Beth, and Mike Martindale. “Oakland Co. Girl Jailed for Not Doing Homework Gets Released.” The Detroit News, The Detroit News, 31 July 2020,

“Michigan Judge Refuses to Free Girl in Missed Homework Case.” BBC News: US & Canada, BBC, 21 July 2020,

Ortiz, Erik. “Michigan Judge Denies Release of Teenage Girl Who Was Jailed after Not Doing Homework.” NBC News, NBC Universal, 20 July 2020,

Vavra, Kassidy. “CRUEL DECISION: Black Girl, 15, Who Suffers from ADHD Gets Locked up in Juvenile Detention Center for Not Doing Her HOMEWORK.” The U.S. Sun, THE SUN, US, INC., 15 July 2020,