The Price Kids Pay: Ticketed at school

Thousands of Illinois students a year are receiving tickets at school for conduct that violates local laws, an investigation by the Tribune and ProPublica has found. The tickets often involve behavior as minor as littering, vaping, using offensive words or gestures, or getting into a hallway scuffle.

Ticketing students violates the intent of an Illinois law that prohibits schools from fining students as a form of discipline. Instead of issuing fines directly, school officials refer students to police, who write the tickets. The fines attached can be hundreds of dollars, an impossible burden for many families. An analysis also found Black students were ticketed at higher rates than their white peers.

Part 1: Schools and police punish students with costly fines

Blake, age 17, and his mother Jennifer Fee, left, attend a hearing at the Tazewell County Courthouse in March.

Reporters found more than 11,800 tickets were issued to students during the last three school years, even though the COVID-19 pandemic kept children out of school for much of that period.

One boy who had shoved his friend in the school cafeteria got ticketed for violating East Peoria’s municipal code forbidding “assault, battery, and affray.” He didn’t know what that phrase meant; he was only 12.

“He was wrong for what he did, but this is a bit extreme for the first time being in trouble. He isn’t even a teenager yet,” his mother said.

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Part 2: Black students far more likely to be ticketed

Students walk outside Bloom Trail High School in April. Black students received nearly all of the tickets written recently at the school.

This investigation also identified a pattern of racial disparities in ticketing. In the schools and districts where racial data was available, an analysis found that Black students were twice as likely to be ticketed than white students.

One school with a huge disparity in ticketing is Bloom Trail High School in south suburban Steger, where about 60% of the student body is Black but Black students got nearly all the tickets.

A mom of two boys who were ticketed there said her sons were treated too harshly. “They’re young Black men,” she said. “They stereotyped them.”

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Part 3: A teen was ticketed at Naperville North for theft. She’s still fighting to clear her name.

Amara Harris, shown at her Naperville home in June, is fighting a theft ticket issued to her while she was attending Naperville North High School.

From the moment Amara Harris was accused of stealing another student’s AirPods at Naperville North High School, she has insisted that it was a mix-up, not a theft.

Still, the school resource officer wrote Amara a ticket in 2019 for violating a municipal ordinance against theft. Paying a fine would have made the matter go away, but Amara says she won’t admit to something she didn’t do.

In a rare and dramatic example of the impact of school ticketing, the case is headed for a jury trial, with the next court date on Tuesday. As Naperville continues to prosecute the case, Amara and her mother have racked up far more in legal bills than the city’s highest fine would have cost them.

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Part 4: Calling police on students every other day

An officer walks outside the Garrison School in Jacksonville, Illinois, in November. A school administrator had called the police after an incident with a student.

On the last street before leaving Jacksonville, there’s a dark brick one-story building that the locals know as the school for “bad” kids. It’s actually a tiny public school for children with disabilities. It sits across the street from farmland and is 2 miles from the Illinois city’s police department, which makes for a short trip when the school calls 911.

Administrators at the Garrison School call the police to report student misbehavior every other school day, on average. And because staff members regularly press charges against the children — some as young as 9 — officers have arrested students more than 100 times in the last five school years, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica found. That is an astounding number given that Garrison, the only school that is part of the Four Rivers Special Education District, has fewer than 65 students in most years.

No other school district — not just in Illinois, but in the entire country — had a higher student arrest rate than Four Rivers the last time data was collected nationwide. That school year, 2017-18, more than half of all Garrison students were arrested.

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Do police give students tickets in your Illinois school district?

Reporters documented ticketing in 141 high school districts and large K-12 districts. For some districts and schools, they also were able to analyze how many tickets went to different racial and ethnic groups.

>>> Search for a public school or district to see if reporters identified ticketing there

Impact: Bill would prohibit schools from using police to ticket students

A new bill in the Illinois House aims to stop schools from working with police to issue students tickets for minor misbehavior, a harmful and sometimes costly practice that many districts have continued despite pleas to stop from the state’s top education officials.

A 2015 Illinois law prohibits schools from fining students as a form of discipline; school officials instead have been referring students to police, who then ticket the students for fighting, littering, theft, possessing vaping devices and other violations of local ordinances.

The new legislation, introduced in February, would amend the state’s school code to make it illegal for school personnel to involve police to issue students citations for incidents that can be addressed through a school’s disciplinary process.

“We have to close that loophole and end school-based ticketing,” said Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Democrat from Chicago who is sponsoring the legislation. “There is no place for this type of system to be in our schools.”

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Impact: The state’s top education official responds

State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala

Hours after the first part of this investigation was published, Illinois’ top education official urged schools to stop working with police to ticket students for misbehavior.

In a strongly worded plea, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said the costly fines associated with the tickets can be immensely harmful to families and there’s no evidence they improve students’ behavior. School officials who refer students to police for ticketing have “abdicated their responsibility for student discipline to local law enforcement,” she wrote.

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Impact: An end to truancy debt collections

Illinois’ top financial official has banned local governments from using a state program to collect debt from students who have been ticketed for truancy, eliminating a burden for families struggling to pay steep fines.

A number of school districts around the state, meanwhile, have begun to scale back and reevaluate when to involve law enforcement in student discipline, among them a suburban Chicago high school where Black students have been disproportionately ticketed. That school, Bloom Trail High School in Steger, said it would stop asking police to ticket students and move to other methods of discipline.

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Impact: Illinois AG opens civil rights investigation on District 211

The Illinois attorney general’s office is investigating whether Township High School District 211, one of the state’s largest school districts, violated civil rights laws when police issued tickets to students accused of minor misbehavior.

The nearly 12,000-student district operates five high schools and two alternative schools in Palatine, Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg.

The attorney general’s office decided to investigate District 211 after reading about racial disparities in ticketing documented by the Tribune and ProPublica as part of the investigation “The Price Kids Pay.”

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Update: Ticketing data update shows racial disparity at Naperville North

Newly obtained police records from five Chicago suburbs offer additional details about students getting ticketed at school for minor offenses, a widespread practice documented in a Tribune-ProPublica investigation this year.

In Naperville, police provided updated records that include information about the race of students ticketed in the city’s two high schools for violating municipal ordinances. At Naperville North High School, only 120 students are Black, or 4.5% of enrollment, but Black students received nearly 27% of the 67 tickets police have issued there since fall 2018.

Black students at Naperville North were nearly five times more likely than their white peers to receive a ticket. At the city’s other high school, Naperville Central, police wrote 44 tickets to young people, most of them white students. The ticketing of Black students there was proportionate to school enrollment.

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Update: Racial disparities revealed at suburban high school District 211

At Illinois’ largest high school district, Black and Latino students were suspended more often than white students, disciplined more often for subjective reasons such as dress code violations, and referred more frequently to the local police, who in many cases then issued costly tickets for misbehavior, data submitted as part of a state investigation shows.

The data, obtained through a public records request, shows that Black and Latino students together received about 65% of the roughly 470 tickets police have issued to high school students since the start of the 2018-19 school year. Those groups make up just 32% of district enrollment. White students, meanwhile, make up nearly 43% of enrollment but received about 28% of the tickets.

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Update: Federal government investigating school with high arrest rate

The U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into a tiny Illinois school district for students with disabilities to determine whether children enrolled there have been denied an appropriate education because of the “practice of referring students to law enforcement for misbehaviors.”

The investigation was initiated Feb. 13, two months after the Tribune and ProPublica reported how the district, which operates a therapeutic day school for students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities, turned to police to arrest students with stunning frequency.

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Amara Harris, center, is hugged by her mother, Marla Baker, left, and grandmother, Catherine Johnson, right, after being found not liable of a municipal citation for the theft of AirPods outside of the DuPage County Courthouse on Aug. 10, 2023, in Wheaton.

Update: Former Naperville student found not liable in trial over AirPods theft ticket

A jury found 20-year-old Amara Harris not liable Thursday in an unusual civil trial involving two high school students, a set of disputed AirPods and a ticket issued by a Naperville police officer nearly four years ago.

The officer assigned to Harris’ former school, Naperville North, wrote her a ticket in 2019, when she was 17, that accused her of stealing another girl’s AirPods. Harris and her lawyers had maintained that she picked up the other student’s AirPods accidentally, mistaking them for her own. She declined to pay a fine or settle the case.

In the three years since Amara Harris was ticketed for theft over a pair of missing AirPods at her high school, she has graduated, earned an associate degree and moved from Naperville to Atlanta to attend Spelman College.

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Update: Ticketing bill suffers setback; supporters vow to keep pushing

Top Illinois officials agreed last year that police shouldn’t ticket students for minor misbehavior at school. But a bill to end the widespread practice fizzled this spring because of disagreement over whether it would accomplish its goal and confusion about whether police would still be able to respond to crime on campus.

Now, legislators and activists are regrouping with a goal of rewriting the bill and passing it in the next legislative session. They say they are committed to changing state law because not all school districts have stopped working with police to ticket students — tickets that can lead to fines of up to $750.

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How we reported on student ticketing

Neither the state of Illinois nor the federal government tracks how often police give tickets to students in public schools for violations of municipal ordinances.

To understand how frequently and for what reasons police cited students, reporters from the Tribune and ProPublica filed more than 500 requests for public records with schools and law enforcement agencies under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

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