Illinois law bans schools from fining students. But police routinely issue tickets to children for minor misbehavior at school, burdening families with financial penalties.

Amara Harris, the young Black woman from suburban Chicago who won a yearslong fight against a police ticket that accused her of stealing a classmate’s AirPods, took her fight to court again Tuesday.

This time, she was the plaintiff, not the defendant.

Harris’ attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging civil rights violations, including racial discrimination and malicious prosecution. When she was a high school junior in 2019, a city police officer based at the school, using information gathered by school deans, ticketed her for violating a municipal ordinance against theft. Harris has always said she did not steal the AirPods but picked them up by mistake, thinking they were her own.

The city refused to drop the ticket, which could have cost Harris up to $500, despite a lack of evidence, the lawsuit alleges. Harris maintained her innocence for nearly four years and took the ordinance violation case to a rare jury trial in August. A jury found Harris not liable after a three-day trial.

The lawsuit names as defendants Naperville — Illinois’ fourth-largest city, about 30 miles west of Chicago — as well as former school-based police officer Juan Leon and his then-supervisor, Jonathan Pope. Leon, who issued the ticket, acknowledged during the trial he had no direct evidence that Harris had stolen the AirPods.

ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune first spotlighted Harris’ fight in 2022 as part of “The Price Kids Pay” investigation, which examined school ticketing in Illinois schools and the impact on students and their families. Two civil rights attorneys took on Harris’ case after that story was published.

Now 21, Harris graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta on Sunday, then traveled home to Naperville ahead of the lawsuit being filed.

Harris said she hopes the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, not only rectifies her troubling experience but leads to students being treated fairly. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages of at least $20 million, punitive damages and for Naperville and its police department to implement training and oversight to prevent future civil rights violations.

“They were wrong and they have to face consequences and be held accountable for what they did and for dragging this on,” Harris told ProPublica this week.

Naperville City Attorney Mike DiSanto said in a statement that the allegations “are without merit” and the city plans to “vigorously defend this lawsuit.” He said the city relied on statements from school officials and students, and noted that the city won several pretrial motions, including one from Harris’ lawyers seeking to have the case dismissed.

“The fact that the jury acquitted Ms. Harris does not negate the factual basis for the actions of the City and its officers,” according to the statement.

“The Price Kids Pay” investigation found that across Illinois, students have been subjected to a capricious system of police ticketing as a form of school discipline. The municipal tickets — for violating ordinances such as vaping, truancy and disorderly conduct — are difficult to fight and often come with fines and administrative fees that can reach hundreds of dollars. Some families have gone into debt and faced serious financial consequences because of unpaid tickets. Unlike in juvenile court, there is no option for a public defender. And taking the case to a jury, as Harris did, can require incredible resources and commitment.

“We’re hoping to highlight that this form of discipline needs to be prohibited throughout the state of Illinois and even throughout the country,” said Juan Thomas, Harris’ attorney and a recent chair of the civil rights and social justice section of the American Bar Association.

Following the Tribune-ProPublica investigation, the Illinois superintendent of education told administrators to stop outsourcing discipline to police, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he wanted to stop school-based ticketing and state lawmakers have considered ways to change the law, though efforts have stalled during the past two legislative sessions.

S. Todd Yeary, who also represents Harris, said he hopes the lawsuit will deter schools from using tickets as was done in Harris’ case.

“If the legislators aren’t going to fix the law, if the system isn’t going to make sure there is accountability, the only recourse is to get the courts involved,” said Yeary, the former CEO of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization.

“This is about one young woman’s courage to say, ‘The reason I am not going to pay the ticket is because I did nothing wrong,’” Yeary said. Just before the trial was set to begin in August, a Naperville prosecutor offered to settle the case if Harris paid a $100 fine. She refused.

Harris’ attorneys, S. Todd Yeary, left, and Juan Thomas, speak with Harris and her mother, Marla Baker, outside the DuPage County Courthouse in August. Credit: Mustafa Hussain for ProPublica

The ProPublica-Tribune investigation found that Black students were twice as likely to be ticketed at school than their white peers. At Naperville North High School, Harris’ school, Black students were nearly five times more likely than white students to be ticketed by police over the three school years the investigation examined, up until the spring of 2021.

The lawsuit alleges that Harris was discriminated against because she is Black and that the ticket issued to her “constituted racial discrimination, a denial of constitutional rights, intimidation and retaliation.”

“If there were ever a civil rights issue, this is it,” Yeary said.

Naperville spokesperson Linda LaCloche has previously denied that race played a role in Harris’ case or in police decisions to ticket students. The school district has distanced itself from the case and has said the Naperville police decide whether to ticket students.

Since police issued her the ticket, Harris graduated early from high school, earned an associate’s degree from a community college, studied abroad in Japan and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. She said she plans to apply to veterinary school.

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