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ProPublica and Chicago Tribune Win NABJ Salute to Excellence Award

The National Association of Black Journalists announced this week that “The Price Kids Pay,” an investigative project from ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, has been honored with a 2023 Salute to Excellence Award in the category of digital project — online media: news.

The series by ProPublica reporters Jennifer Smith Richards (who was then at the Tribune) and Jodi S. Cohen examined school-based ticketing in Illinois, documenting nearly 12,000 tickets issued to students from 2019 to 2021, with fines as high as $750.

In an effort to stop overly punitive school discipline practices, Illinois legislators had previously prohibited schools from fining students for minor misbehavior. Reporting by Cohen and Smith Richards exposed how schools found a loophole in this policy. Instead of fining students directly, schools referred students to police, who then issued tickets. Dozens of school districts, the reporters also found, broke state law by referring students to police for truancy. Some municipalities sent families to collections over unpaid debt from student tickets.

The investigation prompted Illinois education officials to call for an end to school-based ticketing, the state attorney general to initiate a civil rights investigation into a suburban school district northwest of Chicago, and state lawmakers to rethink when police should be involved in student discipline. Subsequent stories in the series revealed how Black students were disproportionately likely to be ticketed and looked closely at the Garrison School in central Illinois, where employees call police on students every other school day, on average. Following the investigation, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into Garrison’s school district.

In addition, legislators have been pushing to amend the state’s school code to stop school personnel from working with police to issue tickets to students for incidents that can be addressed through a school’s disciplinary process.

See a list of all NABJ Salute to Excellence winners.

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