Illinois Cops Are Hitting Students With Hefty Fines For Breaking School Rules
from the beating-up-parents-for-their-kids'-lunch-money dept
Putting cops in schools is a terrible idea. It tends to encourage school administrators to abdicate their disciplinary duties and allow cops to decide which school policy violations should be treated as criminal acts.
Turns out it’s also a bad idea to have compliant cops adjacent to schools. A new report from ProPublica, sourced from hundreds of public records requests, shows schools have found a new way to punish students that not only bypasses state law, but allows administrators to offload discipline to entities whose entire kink is punishing people.
Across Illinois, police are ticketing thousands of students a year for in-school adolescent behavior once handled only by the principal’s office — for littering, for making loud noises, for using offensive words or gestures, for breaking a soap dish in the bathroom.
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 then ticket them for municipal ordinance violations, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica has found.
What are kids getting fined for? $200 for truancy. $175 for being caught with a vape pen. $250 for shoving someone in the cafeteria. State law supposedly forbids schools from notifying law enforcement about truant students, but the records show schools are ignoring this.
On top of those fines there are court and other administrative fees tacked on, adding up to $150 to the total. Many of those fined have to skip school to attend meetings with prosecutors or other law enforcement reps. And when families fail to pay the trumped-up totals, the government sends this off to collection agencies, allowing this disciplinary offshoring to damage parents’ credit ratings.
Unsurprisingly, no one tracks the ticketing of school children — not in Illinois or anywhere else in the nation. ProPublica (working with the Chicago Tribune) has performed the job the government (at large) is uninterested in doing. Utilizing more than 500 public records requests, ProPublica has compiled a searchable database of fines issued by law enforcement on behalf of schools, providing the first bit of sunshine this unseemly practice has seen.
Schools and cops must be happy with this arrangement because it’s happening thousands of times a year.
In all, the investigation documented more than 11,800 tickets issued during the last three school years, even though the COVID-19 pandemic kept students out of school for much of that period and even though records show no students were ticketed in the state’s biggest district, the Chicago Public Schools.
The analysis of 199 districts, which together encompass more than 86% of the state’s high school students, found that ticketing occurred in at least 141. In some K-12 districts, tickets were issued to children as young as 8.
The entire report is well worth reading. It digs deep into the numbers and explains the origin of both the practice of ticketing students as well as the development of the law meant to the end this practice that many schools have figured out how to route around.
It also includes several small details that highlight how internally corrupt and self-serving this whole mess is. First, police and prosecutors directly benefit from ticketing students. Almost all money collected goes directly to these entities. None of it flows back to schools, which means the administrators who are exploiting the loophole in the law to fine students are either too lazy to perform their own discipline or simply harbor some desire to inflict as much misery as possible on students who misbehave.
Even the figureheads that oversee these quasi-judicial proceedings appear to intensely dislike the kids and parents they deal with. ProPublica attended several “hearings” handled by hearing officer Harry H. Semrow Jr., who seemed to take pleasure in criticizing parents for speaking up and ensuring a docket full of students with citations would eat up most of their school day.
“I don’t care,” Semrow said. “I get paid by the hour.”
Records show he gets paid $150 an hour.
And the proceedings he oversees in McHenry, Illinois suddenly got a whole lot less transparent once journalists attended hearings.
Even though the city code calls for it, McHenry also no longer records the proceedings, having abruptly stopped in December soon after reporters began attending. McHenry Deputy Police Chief Thomas Walsh said state law does not require a recording, and he and the police chief decided it “created an unnecessary record.”
Well, sure, unnecessary for him and the other beneficiaries of this system. But the timing is more than just suspect, it’s convicted.
The publication of this investigation has at least prompted the Illinois Superintendent of Education to ask the state’s schools to please stop exploiting the loophole in the law to fine kids for violating school policies.
In a strongly worded plea sent to officials across the state, Illinois 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 Thursday, the same day the investigation “The Price Kids Pay” was published.
That’s a good request but the loophole still exists. And if it exists, it will be exploited, no matter how well-worded the plea is. But it’s a start. And state legislators now know what needs to be fixed. Whether or not they’re able to sustain the desire to do so past the end of this news cycle remains to be seen.