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

This story was co-published with the Chicago Tribune.

The Illinois attorney general’s office is investigating whether one of the state’s largest school districts, located in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, violated civil rights laws when police issued tickets to students accused of minor misbehavior.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul told the Township High School District 211 superintendent last week to provide records on students cited for municipal ordinance violations related to school-based conduct or truancy, according to a letter obtained by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune. The office also requested data and records related to suspensions, expulsions, student transfers to alternative schools and calls to police regarding students since the start of the 2018-19 school year.

The nearly 12,000-student district operates five high schools and two alternative schools in Palatine, Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg.

The attorney general’s office decided to investigate District 211 after reading about racial disparities in ticketing across the state, which was documented by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica for the investigation “The Price Kids Pay.” As part of the investigation, reporters created and published a first-of-its-kind database of tickets issued at Illinois public schools over the last three school years, the reasons police ticketed students and, when available, the racial breakdown of students who received tickets.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul Credit: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Amy Meek, chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the Illinois attorney general’s office, said District 211 stood out in both the number of tickets issued and racial disparities in the ticketing. She said it is possible the office will examine other districts as well.

“This is an issue that we are quite concerned about,” Meek said.

The attorney general’s investigation also targets the village of Palatine and its police department, which has jurisdiction at three of the district’s schools and has officers, known as school police consultants, stationed in its buildings. The attorney general is seeking documents, including records on tickets, debts sent to collections and truancy fines issued to District 211 students, according to a letter sent to the village.

The civil rights investigation is the latest move by the state to address problems uncovered in “The Price Kids Pay,” a series of stories that, together with the database, have documented nearly 12,000 tickets issued in dozens of Illinois districts. Reporters found that school officials and police were working together to ticket students for misbehavior at school, resulting in fines that could cost hundreds of dollars per ticket.

Within hours of the publication of the first story last month, state schools Superintendent Carmen Ayala urged schools to stop asking police to ticket students, saying they had “abdicated their responsibility for student discipline to local law enforcement.” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was exploring ways that he and lawmakers could “make sure that this doesn’t happen anywhere in the state of Illinois.”

Based on available records from two of the three police agencies that work in the district’s schools, reporters documented 541 tickets issued to students at District 211 schools during the past three school years, most of them for truancy, use or possession of tobacco or vaping devices, possession or use of small amounts of cannabis, or disorderly conduct.

Most of the ticket records involving District 211 students were obtained from the Palatine and Hoffman Estates police departments and did not include information on the race of the recipients. District 211 does not track the tickets that police issue to students, according to the district’s chief operating officer. But in response to a public records request for ticket records, the district did provide information on the race of students involved in 120 truancy incidents. These were labeled “truancy ticket issued.”

More than half of those 120 incidents involved Latino students, even though 26% of the district’s students are Latino. Black students represent less than 6% of enrollment but received 10% of the tickets.

Under a law that went into effect in 2019, the Illinois legislature banned schools from referring truant students to police so that they could be ticketed.

In a written statement, District 211 Superintendent Lisa Small said the district views student discipline as a way “to teach students citizenship in the school community, with an emphasis on equity and student success.”

Small said school officials involve the police when student conduct violates a local ordinance or state or federal law, when it poses a safety threat in the school, or when other interventions, such as parent conferences, aren’t effective.

“These responses are implemented regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or other factors,” she wrote. “We continually review our practices to ensure we are acting fairly and equitably, responding appropriately and ensuring the results are in the best interest of all students.”

The Palatine village manager, village attorney and police chief did not respond to requests for comment.

Palatine is just one of three towns whose police departments have jurisdiction in District 211. Because the district does not keep records of when students get cited by police, obtaining a complete picture of ticketing practices in the district would require getting records from all three municipalities. Meek said the attorney general’s office may still also request information from the other two, Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates.

State civil rights inquiries examine whether there’s a “pattern and practice” of unequal treatment based on race or other characteristics, such as gender. Meek said school districts or municipalities can be in violation of civil rights laws when their policies and practices have a disparate impact on certain groups of people, even if it is not intentional.

In requesting records related to ticketing and other forms of discipline, the attorney general’s office asked for information on the students’ race and gender and on whether they have a disability. The office also sought information that would indicate the reasons for the tickets and the cost of the fines.

Palatine High School Credit: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune

In Palatine, records show, police issued 240 tickets from July 2018 to August 2020 to people under 18 at Palatine High School and William Fremd High School. About 170 of those tickets were for truancy. Most of the truancy tickets were written after the law banning schools from referring truant students to police for tickets went into effect.

Ticketing by police was far more common at Palatine High School, where nearly 48% of students are Latino, than at Fremd, where about 10% of students are Latino.

Excluding parking tickets, Palatine police issued more ordinance violation tickets at Palatine High School than anywhere else in the village during the time period examined, according to reporters’ analysis of police records. Nearly three times as many tickets were issued at the high school as at the next most common site for ticketing: Nellie’s Gastropub and Concert Hub, also known as Durty Nellie’s.

At Hoffman Estates’ two high schools, the Tribune-ProPublica investigation identified more than 300 tickets issued to juveniles during the past three school years for disorderly conduct, possession or use of tobacco, e-cigarettes or cannabis, or truancy. The fines totaled nearly $37,000, and about $13,000 was unpaid, records show. Some Illinois municipalities, including Hoffman Estates, send debt from unpaid student tickets to collections.

Schaumburg police would not indicate which of the tickets issued to young people went to students at Schaumburg High School.

One former student at Hoffman Estates High School recounted this week how she was ticketed for disorderly conduct at the school when she was 17 years old. She said she had put her hands out during a verbal confrontation after school. Police records show she was ticketed in March 2019 and fined $200.

The former student, who is multiracial, said she told school officials that the ticket was unfair and didn’t pay it, she said in an interview. Now a 20-year-old college student, she received a notice in January from a collections company that she owes $270.

The woman said she was glad that the attorney general is investigating District 211. “Hoffman has become more diverse in the past couple of years, and there is a difference in how they treat African American students, any kind of minority students. It is different treatment,” she said. “Something should have been done a long time ago because it has been going on for a while.”

Meek said publicly available data on suspensions and expulsions, as well as previous lawsuits against the district, played a role in the decision to launch a civil rights investigation. Meek also said the office is aware that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation in December into whether an individual student had been disciplined unfairly because of their race and disability status. That investigation is pending.

In addition, District 211 settled a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2019 that involved a Black student who had been ticketed at Palatine High School.

In that case, filed in 2016, a Palatine senior alleged that a police officer at the school used excessive force when he chased her down a hallway and pinned her to the ground. According to the lawsuit and a police report that became part of the case record, the girl had been running after her sister because the sister, also a student, spilled milk on her. The officer arrested both sisters and put them in cells at the police department. Police wrote each girl a ticket for violating a village ordinance prohibiting disorderly conduct.

The district, the police officer and school officials named in the lawsuit denied wrongdoing, but the district agreed to settle the case. District officials said they could not locate a record of how much the settlement was for.

The district and Palatine police have until June 30 to provide records sought by the attorney general. If the investigation reveals violations of civil rights law, the attorney general could negotiate with the district to change its practices, seek a court-monitored consent decree or file a lawsuit against the district.

Meek said the investigation could take a year to complete.

“We also encourage people to reach out to the Civil Rights Bureau if they have complaints or concerns about other districts they want to bring to our attention,” she added.