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ProPublica Reporting Projects Win Top Awards from the Education Writers Association

The Price Kids Pay,” a collaboration between ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, won the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting, the top prize in the Education Writers Association’s National Awards for Education Reporting. The series also won first place in the Investigative & Public Service Reporting (Large Newsroom) category. “Invisible Schools,” a collaboration with The Seattle Times, won first place in the Collaborations (All Newsroom Sizes) category.

In “The Price Kids Pay,” ProPublica reporter Jodi S. Cohen and Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith 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 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.

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 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.

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.

“There is so much to love about this series. The findings are damning and clearly explained. The stories are filled with specific examples that make you want to shake your head again and again,” an awards judge said. “I love how they keep hammering the absurdity and counter-productive nature of this by just stating facts. They go the extra step to connect the dots for readers in a way that is very effective. The amount of work that went into these articles were tremendous and it shows. In addition to the work with public records and data analysis, there are so many indications of skillful interviewing throughout the piece.”

“Invisible Schools,” a collaboration through ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, explores 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. Times reporters Lulu Ramadan, Mike Reicher and Taylor Blatchford 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 its own staff, alleging abuse and overuse of seclusion and restraint of students, scant academics, understaffing and billing of school districts for services that weren’t provided.

The series prompted the state Legislature to pass a sweeping reform law and Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to open an investigation. OSPI noted that some allegations were “previously unknown” to the education office and other government agencies.

“Outstanding work exhibiting the kind of public-service, watchdog work that’s possible when a national investigative news organization partners with a deeply-sourced local outlet,” an awards judge said. “The reporting is outstanding, with a powerful blend of harrowing descriptions, on-point data and context. The quick response from legislators shows the impact of this reporting in the state of Washington.”

See a list of all of the Education Writers Association’s top prize winners here. See a full list of all of the 2022 National Awards for Education Reporting winners here.

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