As I write this, there is a 15-year-old girl with ADHD who has been sitting in a juvenile detention facility since May because she did not do her homework.
Should people with ADHD be sent to prison if they don’t finish their homework? The question seems ridiculous, yet here we are.
ProPublica has a detailed article on how this situation came to be. Rather than try to rehash a very well-reported article, I’m going to give only the briefest summary.
Grace, a 15-year old girl with ADHD, was placed on probation, with one of the requirements being that she do her schoolwork. After the pandemic hit and schools transitioned to remote learning, Grace lost much of the academic support outlined in her Individualized Education Plan. According to the ProPublica article:
Grace, who has ADHD, said she felt unmotivated and overwhelmed when online learning began April 15, about a month after schools closed. Without much live instruction or structure, she got easily distracted and had difficulty keeping herself on track, she said.
So far, hardly newsworthy. Many kids struggled with the unexpected transition to remote learning. Anyone who is a teacher or knows one is aware that it’s impossible to expect the same performance from students under such conditions, whether those students have ADHD or not.
Grace’s special education teacher apparently knew that too. As described in the ProPublica article, she told Grace’s court caseworker that Grace was “not out of alignment with most of my other students.” She added that Grace “has a strong desire to do well,” explaining that Grace “is trying to get to the other side of a steep learning curve mountain and we have a plan for her to get there.”
Again, this sounds pretty typical for a student with ADHD who wants to do well in school but is struggling with the combination of a learning disability and an unprecedented disruption everyday life.
The atypical part comes next. After finding that Grace had fallen back to sleep instead of doing homework after one of her caseworker check-ins (the horror!), Grace’s caseworker reported that Grace had violated the terms of her probation.
Grace then had to appear in a May 14 hearing, where she received the following verdict – and I quote, because you can’t make this stuff up: “Found guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school.”
At this point, it’s worth asking: how is it possible that, in the twenty-first century, a child with ADHD could be incarcerated for not doing their homework during the difficult transition to remote learning?
One factor may be systemic racism. Grace is black, and as I wrote about in June, black ADHDers receive unequal treatment in a variety of ways. In that post I wrote:
Where white students with “behavior problems” are diagnosed with ADHD and given support, black students tend to be kicked out of school or sent to prison.
The case of the 15-year-old girl who was sent to prison for not doing her homework certainly seems to fit with that pattern. Although in this case, the girl in question was diagnosed with ADHD and was apparently working constructively with her special education teacher – until a judge decided to throw her in prison anyway, for not doing her homework and sleeping in.
There’s also the broad issue of society, in general, not knowing how to help people with ADHD. For non-ADHDers lacking in mental health awareness, it’s easy to misinterpret ADHD as a moral problem – people with ADHD need to “try harder,” and the way to make them do that is to give them more “discipline.” I guess incarcerating them for falling behind on homework is just the extreme logical conclusion of that mentality.
Of course, knowing that her case is a microcosm of huge societal problems like racism and mental health illiteracy likely doesn’t provide much comfort for Grace.
Grace remains locked up at the euphemistically named “Children’s Village” juvenile facility in Oakland County, Michigan. As it turns out, Grace has been a model prisoner despite her history as a hardened criminal capable of mercilessly oversleeping rather than doing homework.
At a July 20 hearing, the judge who sent Grace to Children’s Village admitted that, seeing notes on Grace’s behavior: “when I read this report, this is as good as it gets.”
But for the judge, who denied testimony from Grace’s special education teacher, Grace’s good behavior was evidence that Grace should stay in detention. “You are blooming there,” said the judge, concluding that “I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be.”
If there was one upside to that hearing for Grace, it was that, as a prisoner under tight restrictions in the time of COVID-19, she got to hug her mom for the first time in over two months.
Image: Flickr/Tiago Pinheiro