“The Price Kids Pay,” an investigative project from ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, won a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Investigative Reporting. The awards, which were presented last week by the Better Government Association, honor achievements in government-related investigative journalism from newsrooms across Illinois.
The series, by ProPublica reporter Jodi S. Cohen and Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards, won first place in the large newsroom category. Cohen and Richards 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, Illinois legislators had previously prohibited schools from fining students for minor misbehavior. Reporting by Cohen and Smith Richards exposed how schools found a loophole to this policy. Instead of fining students directly, schools referred students to police. 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.
In quantifying this statewide practice, the reporters, along with ProPublica news applications developer Ruth Talbot, built a first-of-its-kind database that provides the public with the most comprehensive data set ever of the tickets issued in the state’s schools.
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 parts of the series revealed how Black students were disproportionately likely to be ticketed and looked closely at the Garrison School, 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.
In addition, legislators have been pushing to amend the state’s school code to make it illegal for school personnel to get police involved to ticket students for incidents that can be addressed through a school’s disciplinary process.
See a list of all Driehaus Foundation Awards winners.