Neither the state of Illinois nor the federal government monitors how often police issue tickets to public school students for violating city ordinances.
To understand how often and for what reasons police cited students, reporters from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica filed more than 500 public records requests with schools and law enforcement agencies in under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The requests were sent to 199 school districts: high school districts and larger K-12 districts. These districts encompass approximately 86% of the state’s high school students. The requests sought records showing how often police were involved in incidents with students during the school years that ended in 2019, 2020 and 2021; how many times students have been arrested; and the frequency with which tickets were issued during these incidents. Reporters also asked about the race of the students who had been referred to the police.
Some school districts said they don’t check whether police issued tickets to students, so reporters then filed requests with the hundreds of law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction over high schools. of these districts. The requests were for information on where each ticket was issued, the age of the ticketed person or an indication if they were a minor, the race of the ticketed person, the alleged violation and the amount of the fine.
From these records, the reporters created a database documenting more than 11,800 tickets issued by police in 141 school districts during the three school years examined. For records obtained from the police, the database included tickets issued to a school address to persons under the age of 18, while excluding tickets issued for traffic, parking or at curfew. Records obtained from school officials may have included tickets issued to students 18 or older.
Reporters also collected ticketing information during the current 2021-22 school year in some districts. These data were not included in statewide analyzes or in our interactive database but informs reports on some schools mentioned in the survey.
In addition to recording the number of tickets issued by each police department at each school surveyed, reporters documented why the tickets were issued, how tickets are judged in each community, what the fines and fees are. possible and whether the community is attempting to collect outstanding juvenile debts.
Because the forms used to document tickets varied between districts and police departments, reporters made informed decisions to group tickets into broader categories. For example, reporters categorized tickets for possession of drug paraphernalia and tickets for cannabis use into a single category for drug-related tickets.
A separate team then took a selection of records and checked them to ensure the data had been entered consistently and to look for systemic flaws in the data entry. No generalized problems were found; all small errors that were identified have been corrected.
If a school district or police department provided the race of youths who received tickets, this information was documented in a separate database. In total, reporters were able to compile racial data for tickets issued to schools in 68 districts.
Reporters then excluded from the analysis schools where tickets were scarce – those where fewer than 20 citations had been issued over the three school years – and schools where race information was missing for more than 25% of tickets. . This left about 4,000 tickets that had been issued to schools in 42 districts. In total, these schools serve more than one-fifth of Illinois high school students. For districts and some individual schools, reporters estimated total enrollment and enrollment by race by averaging actual enrollment figures reported to the Illinois State Board of Education for the three school years examined.
To identify potential racial disparities in ticketing, reporters first calculated the total number of enrollments at schools in the database, as well as the total number of enrollments for various racial groups. They then calculated the number of tickets issued for each racial group and compared those rates to those groups’ share of total registration. In a few cases, race information was omitted from the ticket or marked as unknown. These cases were included in the ticket totals to ensure that the resulting racial disparity calculations were conservative.
In some cases, the race of the tagged student was listed, but not the ethnicity, meaning it was not possible to know the actual number of Hispanic or Latino students tagged. For example, some police departments clearly indicated whether a fined person was black or white, but left blank the portion of the record indicating whether a person was Hispanic or Latino. This incomplete documentation meant that some Latino students who received tickets were likely classified as white only.
Some police departments and school districts have provided detailed records for each ticket, including the reason the ticket was written and the race of the student. This allowed reporters to test whether racial disparities differed by type of violation, based on a set of approximately 3,000 tickets issued to students in 33 districts across the state.
To perform this analysis, reporters standardized how different police departments and schools had documented student race, then placed each ticket into a category based on the alleged violation. For example, tickets involving disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, “activity constituting a public nuisance” and “conduct prohibited on school property” were labeled as conduct-related tickets. Tickets involving tobacco, drugs or paraphernalia were labeled as substance tickets.
Reporters calculated the number of tickets in each category for students of different racial groups, then compared those rates to the groups’ share of overall enrollment.
Nine districts contacted by the Tribune and ProPublica did not provide information about police interactions at their schools: Belleville Township High School District 201, O’Fallon Township High School District 203, Streator Township High School District 40, Vienna High School District 133, Bethalto Community Unit School District 8, Collinsville Community Unit School District 10, Harlem School District 122, Indian Prairie Community Unit School District 204, and Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton.
Twenty-three police departments either did not provide records or excluded information in a way that would prevent reporters from determining whether tickets were issued to students at a school in their jurisdiction: Belvidere, Cahokia Heights, Calumet City , Channahon, Crete, Dolton, Fox Lake, Grayslake, Harvey, Kankakee, LaSalle, Lemont, Mount Prospect, North Chicago, Northbrook, Pinckneyville, Richmond, Rockton, Rolling Meadows, Streamwood, Summit, Waukegan and Wood Dale.
To understand how tickets are handled after they are issued, reporters attended more than 50 hearings across Illinois, observing hundreds of cases. They spoke with dozens of families affected by the process; with school, police and municipal authorities; with lawyers and hearing advisers; and with defenders of minors. Reporters consulted with families on how to identify family members in the story, and therefore did not include the full names of all young people.
This story is a collaboration between the Tribune and ProPublica. Smith Richards is a reporter for the Tribune. Cohen is a Chicago-based reporter for ProPublica.