Illinois’ top education official asks schools to stop working with police to ticket students for misbehavior
At Bloom Trail High School in Chicago’s south suburbs, the student body is diverse: About 60% of the 1,100 students are Black or multiracial. Another 27% are Latino. And 12% are white.
But when you look at the group of students who get ticketed for misbehavior at school, the diversity vanishes.
Police, in cooperation with school officials, have written 178 tickets at the school in Steger since the start of the 2018-19 school year. School district records show that six went to Latino students. Five went to white students. And 167 went to Black or multiracial students — 94% of the total.
Such racial disparities in ticketing are part of a pattern at schools across the state, an investigation by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune has found. In the schools and districts examined, an analysis indicated that Black students were twice as likely to be ticketed as their white peers.
Reporters set out to analyze police ticketing in nearly 200 districts throughout Illinois, which together enroll most of the state’s high school students. Most local officials either did not specify race on tickets or refused to provide the information, but the news organizations obtained documentation of the race of students for about 4,000 tickets issued at schools in 68 districts.
After excluding places where ticketing was rare, schools in 42 districts remained, representing more than one-fifth of the state’s high school students. The analysis found that about 9% of those students are Black but nearly 20% of tickets went to Black students.
Analyzing tickets received by members of other racial or ethnic groups is more difficult, in part because the Tribune and ProPublica identified anomalies in the way school districts and police recorded information about white and Latino students. But students in those groups don’t appear to have been ticketed at high rates compared to their share of school enrollment.
Student ticketing in Illinois, or any other state, has never been examined on this scale. In fact, while Illinois officials have focused on whether schools are suspending or expelling Black students in unequal ways, they have not monitored police ticketing at schools. Neither has the division of the U.S. Department of Education that oversees civil rights issues.
The first installment of the Tribune-ProPublica investigation “The Price Kids Pay” detailed how student ticketing flouts a state law meant to prevent schools from using fines to discipline students. The investigation, which was based on school and municipal records from across the state, documented at least 11,800 tickets during the past three school years. It found that schools often involve police in minor incidents, resulting in harsh fines, debt for students and families and records that can follow children into adulthood.
In response, Illinois’ top education official told school leaders to “immediately stop and consider both the cost and the consequences of these fines,” and Gov. J.B. Pritzker said conversations already were underway with legislators “to make sure that this doesn’t happen anywhere in the state of Illinois.”
Illinois lawmakers tried in the past to pass legislation that would require school districts to collect and share student race and ethnicity data compiled by police when they intervene at schools for all types of disciplinary reasons, including such minor offenses as tobacco possession, tardiness or insubordination. But those efforts have stalled.
House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Democrat, said the legislature should take action if school ticketing is harming students.
“If these tickets are being issued disproportionately to people of color, we need to address that. That can create larger problems for students of color, problems that we’ve become accustomed to for far too long,” Welch said in an interview.
The U.S. Department of Education collects data nationally in alternate years about the race of students referred to and arrested by police. But it didn’t do so during the 2019-20 school year, when in-person learning was interrupted by the pandemic. In 2017-18, the most recent year data was collected, Illinois stood out for the gap between the percentage of students who are Black and the percentage of students referred to the police who are Black. No other state had a bigger disparity.
In response to similar data on expulsions and suspensions, the state last fall put a group of districts including Bloom Township High School District 206 on notice to reform how they handle discipline.
In an emailed response to reporters’ questions, district officials said they were concerned about the racial disparities in ticketing identified at Bloom Trail. The district’s response asserted that Black students and white students receive the same consequences for the same offenses and that the school has been affected by “a rise in violent crime and gang activity” in the communities the school serves.
Officials at Bloom Trail, which employs security guards to work inside the school, call Steger police when there is a fight that school officials think warrants a citation. Police bring the students’ tickets to the school, and officials give them to the students or their parents.
Greg Horak, Bloom Township’s director of climate, described the citations as a supplement to school discipline. “Dealing with the police, we hope this shows parents that this is a very serious situation,” Horak said in an interview.
Rodney and Elizabeth Posley, whose sons Josiah and Jeremiah attend Bloom Trail, didn’t realize students could get ticketed by police until it happened to their children in the fall. They said the boys were treated too harshly after they were part of a school fight that got out of hand.
The brothers were suspended and ticketed for disorderly conduct, and one was threatened with expulsion — extreme measures, Elizabeth Posley said, for teenage mistakes. The Posleys enlisted the help of a lawyer, their church and school employees to advocate for their sons, noting that neither boy had been in trouble at school before and the younger of the two receives special education services.
“They’re young Black men. They stereotyped them,” said Elizabeth Posley, who works as a pretrial officer at the Cook County Circuit Court. “They’re not into gangs, where they’re tough and they’re bad. We pray as a family.”
Last fall, during his freshman year at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, southwest of Chicago, a 14-year-old Black student named Isaiah felt like school employees were closely watching him. Then an administrator reported him to Bradley village police after catching a glimpse of another student handing Isaiah a vaping device in a bathroom.
At the high school, which is patrolled by 10 security guards and a police officer, 10% of students are Black. But Black students received 21% of the 137 tickets written there from the start of the 2018-19 school year through the end of October. White students, who make up more than 68% of enrollment, got 60% of the tickets.
In Bradley, as in many other Illinois communities, students ticketed in schools are funneled into quasi-judicial hearings designed for adults and overseen by the local municipality. At the hearing for Isaiah’s ticket at Bradley’s village hall in November, the hearing officer asked Isaiah to “admit” or “deny” that he had a vaping device at school. Isaiah’s mom encouraged him to say “deny” so the hearing officer would allow him to describe what led to the ticket.
Isaiah explained that he had immediately handed the vaping device back to his friend. He said he had been searched by administrators — including being made to remove his socks and shoes — and no device was found.
The hearing officer found Isaiah not liable for possession of an electronic vaping device — a rare vindication in a ticketing case. But the village imposes a $50 fee for attending the hearing, which Isaiah still had to pay.
Isaiah’s mother, Catherine Hilgeman, said in an interview that she was upset school officials had questioned and searched her son without contacting her. She said she told her son he had learned a lesson: “You are a young Black male. You already have something against you. You shouldn’t, but you do — it’s the color of your skin. When somebody looks at you they automatically think, ‘They’re up to no good.’”
Christian, a multiracial student ticketed in the fall, described a strikingly similar incident. Another student, who saw in a mirror that a school administrator was walking into the bathroom, quickly handed his vape pen to Christian, who put it in his pocket, the family said.
Christian, 16, was required to appear at a ticket hearing in Bradley on a January afternoon. Most of the people ordered to attend that day were high school students, and most of them, including Christian, had been ticketed for possession of vaping devices. The hearing officer ordered Christian to pay $175 — a $125 fine plus a $50 hearing fee — and then asked if he would pay that day or if he needed time.
“Take some time,” Christian said. He is paying the fine off with money he earned at his job at Little Caesars. By early May, he had paid $113, his mother said.
If students don’t pay their fines quickly, Bradley is one of many Illinois municipalities that have sent the debt to collection agencies or to a program run by the state comptroller’s office that deducts money from tax refunds or payroll checks.
At DeKalb High School, west of Chicago, nearly half the tickets issued during the past three years went to Black students, even though only about 20% of the students are Black. Between the start of the school year and mid-November, police wrote about 30 tickets to students, and Black students received 22 of them, or 73%. Most of the tickets were for fighting, followed by cannabis possession.
Tickets were also written at the two middle schools in DeKalb Community Unit School District 428, to students as young as 11, city records show. Black students make up about a quarter of the enrollment at each school, but at Huntley Middle School at least 63% of tickets went to Black students during the last three school years. At Clinton Rosette Middle School, tickets did not always specify race, but at least 40% went to Black students.
At four DeKalb hearings that reporters attended in the fall and winter, nearly all of the students were Black or Latino. All of the adults involved in the hearing process — the prosecutor, the clerk, the bailiff, the hearing officer — were white.
Records from the last three school years show that DeKalb students were most commonly cited for fighting, a violation that comes with a minimum $300 fine. The city gives students a choice: Pay within 21 days of getting the ticket, or attend a hearing. At the hearing, students can contest the ticket or plead liable, which usually results in an order to do community service. Hearings are held twice a month at 9 a.m. at the police station, and students have to miss school to be there.
If the students don’t pay and don’t show up on their hearing date, the fine increases to the maximum allowed by state law: $750, plus a $100 administrative fee. If the fines and fees are not paid, the debt can be sent to collections.
Terri Jackson, whose 14-year-old daughter agreed to perform 25 hours of community service after being ticketed for fighting, said she thinks the reason more tickets are written to Black children is simple: “They’re paying attention to what the Black kids do.”
At a hearing in November, a 15-year-old boy who had been caught with cannabis vape cartridges at the high school received 15 hours of community service; he would be fined $250 if he didn’t complete it. After he went before the hearing officer, he told reporters he thought white students were disciplined less harshly at his school.
“There’s differences. There are situations when they get caught and not punished like we do,” said the sophomore, who identifies as Black and Latino.
Brian Wright, principal at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, called his school’s ticketing disparity disturbing and perhaps a reflection of racial bias.
“We have to assume that there is a population of our white students doing the same things that our Black students are, but why are they not getting ticketed but our Black students are?” Wright asked. “It is bothersome to me, but it is good information to take back to our assistant principals to see.”
Wright said the school already is concerned about disproportionate suspensions. He also said the school has been working to address racial equity and inclusivity during the past few years by diversifying the books in the curriculum and including more students of color in Advanced Placement courses.
Administrators at other schools who were interviewed for this story said the disparities in ticketing at their schools are not the result of racial bias.
“The police are just being responsive to the actions of the students,” DeKalb High School Principal James Horne said. “Where you see in the data the disproportionate numbers, the unfortunate part is there is disproportionate trauma that is affecting certain parts of the community.” He added: “We’re just being responsive to the challenge of our students.”
Horne said his high school doesn’t only respond to student misbehavior by involving police; it also uses restorative justice practices that bring students together to resolve conflicts with discussion and problem-solving. The school tries to avoid discipline that causes students to miss class time, Horne said.
Reporters sent DeKalb district officials questions about disparities at the two middle schools. They did not address those questions but wrote in a statement that they have been taking actions to better support their students and are developing a new districtwide code of conduct.
Disproportionate ticketing also occurs at schools with relatively few Black students, the analysis found. East Peoria Community High School, for example, has about 25 Black students in an average year. But Black students received 11 of the tickets police wrote during the past three school years. That’s 10% of all police tickets, even though Black students represent just 2% of the school’s enrollment. This school year, records show Black students received six of the 34 tickets police issued through mid-January, or about 18%. These totals don’t include truancy tickets, as those were issued by a school employee.
Marjorie Greuter, the East Peoria Community High School superintendent, disputed any suggestion that students are ticketed unfairly at her school.
“We’re consistent in our referral for city ordinance violations. If a kid is vaping, it doesn’t matter — male, female, white, Black, low-income, high-income — they’re going to get referred” to the school police officer, Greuter said.
“If it’s disproportionate, it’s because the offense is disproportionate or the offender is disproportionate.”
Bloom Township High School District 206 has two schools: Bloom Trail in Steger and Bloom in Chicago Heights. The Chicago Heights Police Department does not ticket students at Bloom, but Steger police have agreed to ticket students at Bloom Trail when contacted by school officials.
“They call us and we ticket them,” said Steger police Chief Greg Smith, who acknowledged that when he got into a fight at school as a teenager in the mid-1980s, his dean and football coach took care of it.
“I think the world has changed. What happened in the past, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a dean to smack a kid upside the head — that, they just don’t do anymore.”
Now, he said, “it is the police officer’s problem, and it’s unfortunate, but everything has come down to ‘We need the police.’ We are handling a lot more issues than police used to.”
In Chicago Heights, Deputy police Chief Mikal Elamin said officers will arrest a student if necessary — if the school or a victim signs a complaint — but the department doesn’t think ticketing is appropriate. Police have not ticketed students at Bloom High School in at least the last three years, records show.
“I can’t tell you that we have never ticketed, but I can say that it is not our policy to target or focus on our high school students. We wouldn’t do that,” Elamin said. He said issuing tickets would be “punishing the parent” because students typically aren’t capable of paying.
In an emailed response to reporters’ questions, Bloom Township district officials said administrators call the police when someone is injured or at risk of physical harm, when there is “severe and potentially dangerous” school disruption or when a student’s behavior has “willfully interrupted the learning process” beyond what school workers can handle.
“Overall, we work to communicate that the school is not the place to handle your disagreements physically,” according to the email. “We are intentional about addressing these situations fairly and equitably, regardless of students’ race or gender.”
After reviewing the district’s own data and in response to the findings of the Tribune-ProPublica investigation, the Bloom Township superintendent scheduled a meeting with the Steger police chief to revisit their approach to police involvement in discipline.
“We want to be on the right side of things and do what is best for children,” said Latunja Williams, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.
Decades of research on school discipline has shown that when a judgment call is involved — such as whether to ticket someone for disorderly conduct for being disruptive or profane — students of color are disciplined more severely.
The Tribune and ProPublica were able to analyze both the race of students and the alleged violations for about 3,000 tickets that police wrote in 34 districts. While Black students made up about 11% of the enrollment in schools in these districts, they received nearly 29% of the tickets related to student behavior, including disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, insubordination, “activity constituting a public nuisance” and “prohibited conduct on school property.” White students represented about 45% of enrollment and 44% of the tickets related to student behavior. Black students also were disproportionately ticketed for fighting, assault and other offenses related to physical aggression.
Other types of violations, such as possession of drug paraphernalia, were more in proportion to Black students’ enrollment. For several other racial groups, including Asian students and Native American students, there were too few tickets to draw meaningful conclusions.
Russ Skiba, a professor emeritus at Indiana University and a leading researcher on educational inequity, said U.S. schools began suspending Black students disproportionately for behavioral offenses in the 1970s, after districts were forced to fully desegregate. In the 1990s, he added, police became a more common presence in schools, exacerbating inequalities in discipline.
“There is an abundance of research that shows that Black students are not engaging in more severe behavior, that they receive punishments that are harsher for the same behavior,” Skiba said. “Black and brown kids understand, and it doesn’t go unnoticed, that they are being punished more often, suspended more often and, in your case, ticketed more often.”
Few studies have examined ticketing of students, including how race may play a role. But an analysis published this year by the American Civil Liberties Union found police cited Black students in the Erie City School District in Pennsylvania for minor infractions at four times the rate of white students.
And in Texas, the Texas Appleseed advocacy group uncovered disparities in police ticketing in multiple school districts, leading state lawmakers to pass legislation in 2013 that prohibits officers from issuing tickets for disrupting class and other misbehavior at school. In the state’s Bryan Independent School District, police had issued 53% of tickets for “disruption of class” to Black students during the 2011-2012 school year, even though that group made up about 21% of the district’s enrollment. U.S. Department of Education investigators looking into the Bryan district found at least 10 incidents where Black students received harsher punishment than white students for similar conduct.
Federal data tracks how often schools involve police in a school incident, which is called a police referral, and whether an arrest was made, as well as the race of the students involved. The data does not track ticketing or other possible outcomes. In Illinois, Black students accounted for about 17% of enrollment but 42% of the students referred to police in the 2017-18 school year, according to the federal data.
The gap is similar with suspensions and expulsions. State data shows that in the 2019-20 school year about 44% of the students suspended or expelled from Illinois public schools were Black.
Citing the federal and state data, Illinois state education and justice officials in March urged schools to evaluate their punitive discipline policies, including suspensions and expulsions, and the impact of police in their schools. They said the expanding role of police officers at school raises concerns about a disparate impact on students of color, particularly Black students.
It was the first guidance the state has issued to school districts with the intent of ensuring that disciplinary practices do not violate civil rights law. Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson Jackie Matthews said punishing students for behaviors perceived as defiance or misconduct does nothing to address the reasons the students are behaving that way.
“These tactics disproportionately impact students of color and increase the odds of students dropping out and experiencing involvement with the criminal justice system,” Matthews wrote in an email.
The recent state guidance did not mention tickets, which the Tribune-ProPublica investigation found to be the most common outcome when police get involved in school incidents.
Amy Meek, chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the Illinois attorney general’s office, said schools can be in violation of civil rights laws if their policies and practices have a disparate impact on certain groups of people — even if it is not intentional.
Ticketing students “falls within the umbrella of concerns” related to disparate impact and is “something that we definitely look forward to looking at in more depth,” Meek said.
“School districts have an ongoing obligation to annually revisit their discipline policies,” she said. “This is a prime opportunity for them to look at their data and take a look at practices that they may be employing that impose an unjustified disparate impact because of race.”
Harold Jordan, nationwide education equity coordinator at the ACLU, said the U.S. Department of Education should be specifically tracking police ticketing at schools as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection, which is used to monitor whether schools provide equal opportunities to all students. The education department did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think it’s significant because it’s an indicator of the extent to which there’s a growing amount of collaboration between schools and police that’s outright harmful,” Jordan said.
He said that while some incidents at school are serious, most discipline is for minor infractions. “Two kids can do essentially the same thing and be treated quite differently in how they are disciplined, and especially whether police are involved,” Jordan said. “Too often, race and ethnicity are factors.”
Bloom Township High School District 206 is on an Illinois State Board of Education list of districts that, for three consecutive years, suspended or expelled students of color disproportionately. In the 2019-20 school year, 88.5% of students suspended at Bloom Trail High School were Black, though Black students make up only about 54% of the student body.
Concerned about those numbers, district officials have focused this year on alternative ways to correct student behavior, they wrote in an email. The district is one of six in the state participating in training sessions focused on improving equity in student discipline, funded by the Illinois State Board of Education with pandemic relief funds.
Bloom Township school administrators are working with Loyola University Chicago school discipline experts to get certified in restorative justice practices. In February, all school employees were trained on positive behavior interventions. The district also has partnered with the University of Illinois at Springfield to learn about “empathetic instruction,” a way of handling student misbehavior in less punitive ways.
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure a safe learning environment for all students and the school community, while proactively addressing the challenging behaviors of some of our neediest students,” district officials wrote in an emailed response.
But ticketing remains a central part of Bloom Trail’s disciplinary process, and by mid-April of this school year, all but six of the 54 tickets police wrote at the school went to Black students. No white students were ticketed.
Two of the tickets written to Black students went to the Posleys’ sons, Josiah and Jeremiah, who were 16 and 14 at the time.
Josiah said he made a bad decision to meet another student in the bathroom after a disagreement. Once there, he said, he got jumped by several boys and defended himself. “I didn’t instigate it. I didn’t cause it,” said Josiah, who excels in algebra and literature and wants to be an engineer. “I’m not like that.”
Jeremiah said he followed Josiah into the bathroom out of concern for his brother. He didn’t hit anyone, he said, but one of the boys punched him in the face. At least five boys were involved in the fight, and a security guard who tried to break it up needed four stitches after a student — not one of the brothers — pushed him into a window, according to the district.
After the fight, school officials suspended the brothers and threatened to expel Josiah, a junior, for “mob action.” A meeting also was called to review the special education plan for Jeremiah, a freshman who has autism, and his parents feared the school would try to transfer him.
The family was shocked by the severity of the punishment for two boys who had not had previous discipline issues and were good students. They decided to find a lawyer and challenge the school’s actions. Bloom Trail later withdrew the threat of expulsion and told both boys to come back to school.
But by then, the school had already asked Steger police to write tickets. Both boys, as well as three other students who were in the bathroom, were cited for disorderly conduct.
The Posleys said involving police added a layer of unnecessary punishment and worry for the family. The police department sent letters to their home notifying the boys that they had to appear at a hearing in November at the police station.
Jackie Ross, an attorney at Loyola University Chicago’s ChildLaw Clinic who specializes in school discipline and special education, said she took on Josiah and Jeremiah’s case because she felt the boys were being treated unfairly. The same goes for many others, she said.
“There is this gross secret practice going on of fining families of color who are largely unrepresented and making a lot of money from it,” Ross said.
The school district said officials couldn’t talk about the discipline of individual students.
As the brothers’ November hearing date neared, Elizabeth Posley worried that Josiah’s longer hair wouldn’t be considered “presentable.” Her husband agreed, even though Josiah thought it was unfair that he would have to change the way he looked to avoid being stereotyped.
“In my mind, because you look a certain way as an African American child, you’re going to be judged a certain way,” Elizabeth Posley said. Rodney Posley used his clippers to cut Josiah’s hair.
Both boys wore suits to the hearing, Jeremiah’s from his eighth-grade graduation. The family lined up several character references, including one from a church leader. Three Bloom Trail employees — a guidance counselor, a social worker and a teacher — signed a letter praising Jeremiah and his parents for their positive involvement in school.
“Jeremiah is a hard worker, compassionate and respectful of others,” they wrote.
Josiah said he expected the hearing would be in a courtroom, like the one on the TV show “Judge Mathis.” Instead, it took place in a Steger police conference room with rows of stackable chairs.
According to a recording of the hearing, Ross told the hearing officer that Illinois law specifically prohibits schools from fining students for disciplinary reasons. She said Jeremiah has difficulty reading social cues because of his autism and went into the bathroom not knowing he was walking into a fight. Jeremiah has protections under federal disabilities law, she argued, and the consequences he faced for his actions, including the ticket, were inappropriate.
The family said at the hearing that school officials had scaled back some of the school-based punishment and that the family expected the ticket would be thrown out, too.
“It doesn’t matter if the school disciplined the children or didn’t discipline them,” hearing officer Brian Driscoll said in response. At the hearing, he said, “it is just different rules.”
Under Steger’s municipal code, the hearing officer has discretion in setting the amount of a fine or can decide to give a warning instead.
Driscoll found both boys liable and said he would fine Josiah $75 and Jeremiah $25. A third boy involved in the fight also received a $75 fine. Two others didn’t show up for the hearing and were fined $150 each.
The five boys ticketed for the Bloom Trail fight, all students of color, collectively owed the village $475.
“I didn’t find what he did helpful,” Elizabeth Posley said of the hearing officer. “He didn’t tell the kids to apologize or make up. He just fined them and kicked them out. He fined kids all night. Every kid who got in there got a fine.”
The Posleys didn’t pay the fines that night. They thought about appealing. But a few days later, concerned that they had a short window before the village could impose further financial consequences, Rodney Posley went to the police station to pay.
When he got there, he found out Steger accepts only cash or checks for ticket payments, and he didn’t have $100 on him. He drove to a nearby Jewel-Osco supermarket and bought a Snickers bar with his debit card so he could get cash back, then drove back and handed over the money.
Josiah’s suspension prevented him from playing drums at the high school’s homecoming concert in the fall. Now that it’s prom season, he’s glad he can participate in school activities again. Wanting his younger brother to experience a typical high school rite of passage, Josiah decided to take Jeremiah to the prom with him.
On Friday, surrounded by 20 family members, the brothers slipped on sunglasses and posed in the driveway by an arch of red and black balloons to match their red and black suits. As the boys left for the dance, the whole family cheered.
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