Investigative Reporters & Editors announced Monday that a ProPublica collaboration with the Chicago Tribune won an IRE Award, and that three other ProPublica projects are finalists.
“The Price Kids Pay” won in the print/online category. The series, by Jodi S. Cohen of ProPublica and Jennifer Smith Richards of the Tribune, was the broadest look ever at school-based ticketing in the country, documenting more than 12,000 tickets issued to students from 2019 to 2021. The reporters worked for more than a year to understand and quantify ticketing through more than 500 Freedom of Information Act requests to Illinois school districts and police departments, focusing on nearly 200 high-school-only districts and large K-12 districts. By examining those records and traveling across the state to attend ordinance violation hearings that attracted almost no scrutiny, the reporters were able to forcefully expose a hidden Illinois injustice. Schools and police had regularly been funneling students into a quasi-judicial municipal ticketing system that delivers harsh punishment for such minor infractions as littering, swearing or breaking a soap dish. Armando L. Sanchez of the Tribune contributed photography to the series.
The investigation prompted state education officials to call for the end of school-based ticketing, the state attorney general to initiate a civil rights investigation into a suburban school district northwest of Chicago and school superintendents to rethink when police should be involved in student discipline. Subsequent parts of the series revealed how ticketing was often disproportionately applied to Black students and looked closely at the Garrison School, where employees call police on students every other day on average. The U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation.
“The Uvalde school shooting and the fight for transparency,” a collaboration by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Washington Post, and “Invisible Schools,” a partnership with The Seattle Times, were finalists for the FOI Award, which honors individuals or organizations whose significant actions further open records or open government. In the investigation about the school shooting, ProPublica’s joint investigative unit with the Tribune published a series of stories that detailed efforts by the organizations to obtain important public documents, scrutinized the state police response and obtained more than 20 emergency calls and dozens of hours of conversations between police and dispatchers that lay bare the increasing sense of urgency and desperation conveyed by children and teachers. The organizations then teamed up with the Post on an investigation that for the first time showed communication lapses and muddled lines of authority among medical responders, which further hampered treatment to victims after police finally confronted the shooter at Robb Elementary School.
“Invisible Schools” explored the network of privately run schools on the fringes of Washington state’s special education system that advertise an array of expensive therapeutic services to public school districts to help students with severe disabilities. The Times and ProPublica found that the largest chain of these private schools, Northwest School of Innovative Learning, has been the target of years of complaints from parents, school districts and their own staff, alleging abuse and overuse of seclusion and restraint of students, scant academics, understaffing and billing school districts for services that weren’t provided.
The two-part investigation “How a Chinese American Gangster Transformed Money Laundering for Drug Cartels” and “The Globetrotting Con Man and Suspected Spy Who Met With President Trump” was a finalist for the Tom Renner Award for covering organized crime or other criminal acts. Reporters Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg examined the Chinese mafia’s rise to dominance in money laundering for drug cartels operating in the Americas.
See all IRE Award winners and finalists here.