2022 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

The Price Kids Pay

About the Project

Illinois law bans schools from using fines to discipline students. But in “The Price Kids Pay,” an investigation by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, reporters found that schools routinely work with police to issue students tickets for violating municipal ordinances – tickets that come with costly fines. In the broadest look at school-based ticketing anywhere in the country, the investigation documented thousands of tickets students received for minor offenses ranging from littering and swearing to vaping and fighting.

This capricious system inflicts serious and lasting harm on young people and their families, reporters found. To resolve the tickets, children are thrown into a legal process designed for adults where they can be fined as much as $750; they even can be sent to collections if they don’t pay.

At the assembly-line hearings where many of these cases are handled, students have no right to legal representation and little chance to defend themselves against charges. The fines, plus administrative or court fees of up to $150, present an impossible burden for some families. And, unlike records from juvenile court, these cases can’t be expunged under state law.

With few watchful eyes on the school ticketing system and few rules to govern it, inequities have gone undetected. The investigation examined the race of students ticketed in dozens of school districts and found that police had issued tickets disproportionately to Black students.

The Tribune and ProPublica worked for more than a year to understand and quantify ticketing through hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to Illinois school districts and police departments, focusing on nearly 200 high-school-only districts and large K-12 districts.

Reporters built a first-of-its-kind database from those school and police records and then analyzed the number of tickets issued at each school, the reasons students were ticketed, the cost of the tickets and whether debt from student tickets could be sent to collections. They documented about 12,000 tickets issued to young people at school in the last three school years.

The data analysis found school officials had referred students to police to be ticketed for truancy more than 1,000 times, a practice expressly prohibited under state law.

An online tool allowed readers to search for information on their district or school, empowering students and families to learn more about what was happening in their own communities and reflecting the news organizations’ commitment to shining a light on practices across the state.

The team of journalists also wanted readers to experience the story — which was full of complex and likely unfamiliar concepts — in many different ways. So in addition to the interactive data experience, narrative vignettes and illustrations offered a way for readers to connect on a personal level with families who had been through the ticketing process.