The courthouse lobby echoed like a crowded school cafeteria. Teenagers in sweatshirts and sneakers gossiped and scrolled on their phones as they clutched the yellow tickets that police had issued them at school.
Abigail, a 16-year-old facing a $200 penalty for truancy, missed school again while she waited hours for a prosecutor to call her name. Sophia, a 14-year-old looking at $175 in fines and fees after school security caught her with a vape pen, sat on her mother’s lap.
A boy named Kameron, who had shoved his friend over a Lipton peach iced tea in the school cafeteria, had been cited for violating East Peoria’s municipal code forbidding “assault, battery, and affray.” He didn’t know what that phrase meant; he was 12 years old.
“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,” Shannon Poole said as her son signed a plea agreement that came with $250 in fines and fees. They spent three hours at the courthouse as Kameron missed math, social studies and science.
The nearly 30 students summoned to the Tazewell County Courthouse that January morning were not facing criminal charges; they’d received tickets for violating a municipal ordinance while at school. Each was presented with a choice: agree to pay a fine or challenge the ticket at a later hearing. Failing to pay, they were told, could bring adult consequences, from losing their driving privileges to harming their future credit scores.
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. (Use our interactive database to look up how many and what kinds of tickets have been issued in an Illinois public school or district.)
Another state law prohibits schools from notifying police when students are truant so officers can ticket them. But the investigation found dozens of school districts routinely fail to follow this law.
“Basically schools are using this as a way to have municipalities do their dirty work,” said Jackie Ross, an attorney at Loyola University Chicago’s ChildLaw Clinic who specializes in school discipline. “It’s the next iteration of the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools might be patting themselves on the back and saying it’s just the school-to-municipality pipeline, but it’s the same philosophy.”
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 that can have long-term consequences. Ticket fines can be hundreds of dollars, presenting an impossible burden for some families, and administrative or court fees of up to $150 are often tacked on.
Unpaid fines are sometimes sent to collections or deducted from parents’ tax refunds. And, unlike records from juvenile court, these cases can’t be expunged under state law.
No government entity tracks student ticketing, either in Illinois or nationally. Though a handful of communities in other states have sought to limit the practice, Illinois has not tried to monitor it, even after lawmakers attempted several years ago to stop schools from fining students as discipline. The Tribune and ProPublica quantified school tickets through more than 500 Freedom of Information Act requests to school districts and police departments, focusing on nearly 200 high-school-only districts and large K-12 districts.
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 chief sponsor of the discipline legislation in the House, Democratic Rep. William Davis, called school-related ticketing “in opposition” to the law. Current House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, also a sponsor, agreed and said legislators should revisit the law.