Two Black women talk about the teen with ADHD put in juvie for not doing homework

Recently, ProPublica reported that a Michigan court sent a 15-year-old African American girl with ADHD to juvenile detention hall for violating probation. Her offense? She hadn’t done her homework during remote learning. 

The teen was originally on probation for fighting with her mom and stealing a cell phone at school. But homework was the court’s reason for putting her in detention.

Two voices from Understood by Us, Olivia Thomas and Atira Roberson, talk about what happened and how they feel about it. Both Olivia and Atira are young Black women who learn and think differently.

Olivia: First off, this is extremely upsetting and messed up. If you read the story, the girl seems like an average teenager.

Yeah, she got in fights with her mom. And she took electronics from school, which is understandable because she didn’t have that at home. But her mom lacked the resources to be able to understand her daughter. Both of them seemed kind of lost and the system made it worse.

Atira: It definitely did, which is frustrating. Because you have this whole team of people at school who should have been responsible for helping the girl with homework. Even with everyone online because of coronavirus.

There was no reason the school didn’t have the means to track her progress. They knew she had ADHD. They knew she had a mood disorder. I don’t know many kids who are going to be able to sit at the laptop for X amount of hours for Zoom calls and Google Classroom. You are asking a lot out of a child.

And then she had a special education plan. So then my question is, if you knew we were going to be online, why didn’t you plan for this? Why did you not reach out to the mother? She doesn’t know what to do, clearly. I have so many questions for the school. Like why!?

Olivia: Exactly.

Atira: I mean, I know she is not the only student who has been impacted by COVID. I know she isn’t the only one who didn’t do her homework. Why is she the one you deem to be the problem child? How is putting her in juvenile hall supposed to correct the problem?

Olivia: You are also putting this child into more harm’s way because of COVID, because she could get sick in juvenile hall, because she could spread it. You are not just impacting her life; you are impacting everyone. Putting kids away for minor things is just adding gasoline to the fire.

I’m just like heated about this.

Atira: Yes. Unfortunately, this is going to traumatize this girl. It wouldn’t be surprising if her attitude is going to be off for the next few years, or she ends up getting into more trouble because of this.

Olivia: And also something we haven’t talked about is race. I don’t think this would have ever happened to a white child. 

Atira: Not at all.

Olivia: There would be more steps. There would be more prevention. Putting this girl into jail is the easiest answer, and just part of people of color’s lives. The possibility to go to prison or to go to juvie because you are Black.

Atira: I read a quote on Instagram. It said something like: The system was never broken. It was doing exactly what it is designed to do, which is to work against us. It was not made for people of color at all. We were not included in the process.

So what can we do to throw that system in the garbage and come up with something different? Because this is not working.

Olivia: This is how school-to-prison works.

Atira: We need to acknowledge the problem. I’m not going to name-drop.

Olivia: Do it!

Atira: Everyone is tiptoeing around these issues because it’s not little Sally Jo. Unless you have the time to be that parent who is able to go to the school and demand answers, you are going to end up falling through the cracks. 

That’s what my mom had to do. She is a very intimidating person. If she didn’t go to school and ask questions, I probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as I’ve gotten, and graduated from high school and college like I have. Because they wanted to put me in easy classes. And I knew they were too easy. And my mom knew that I knew that it was too easy.

My mom demanded answers. And when you back them up against the wall, they have no choice but to answer. But it’s just frustrating that it has to get to that point because people don’t understand Black people unless we get disrespectful and irate. And it shouldn’t have to get to that point.

Olivia: Yeah, and that’s the stereotype right? Every Black woman. It shouldn’t have to go that far. Instead of demanding answers, the school should have said: Here, here are the answers.

COVID is not going away. It seems to just be getting worse. We need to work better, harder, smarter. We need to do justice to our Black kids. So we don’t go backwards.

Atira: I think until people take full responsibility for the way the system is set up, this is going to keep happening. Thankfully, we have news reporters who are keeping a record of these things.

This teen is not the only kid who had problems going to school online. Our education system should have worked with her, not against her. But with how the system is run right now, I don’t see that happening. 

But as far as who put her in detention, they need to be held accountable. We need answers. More than an “I’m sorry.” Because “I’m sorry” isn’t going to take away the emotional trauma that this girl is going through.

Editor's note: After this interview was published, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the release of the 15-year-old girl.

Read about Ryan’s experience in school as a young Black boy with ADHD. And check out statistics on how school suspensions impact students with learning and thinking differences.


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