2020 Shortlist

Chicago Tribune

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Chicago Tribune, ProPublica Illinois

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 19/11/2019

Credit: Jennifer Smith-Richards, Jodi Cohen, Lakeidra Chavis

Project description:

This project is a partnership between the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. Together, they exposed how Illinois schools put special education students in seclusion rooms or physically restrained them for unlawful reasons, sparking swift government action.

The two lead reporters on the project, Jennifer Smith Richards of the Tribune and Jodi S. Cohen of ProPublica Illinois, worked side by side through every step of the story. The collaboration also included members of the data, visual, editing and production teams at both news organizations. 

Impact reached:

“The Quiet Rooms” resulted in immediate, meaningful change that will affect the lives of thousands of children. 

Emergency actions: A day after publication, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the state’s seclusion practices “appalling” and directed the Illinois Board of Education to take immediate action. State officials issued emergency rules prohibiting schools from putting children into isolated timeout behind locked doors. For the first time, the state is monitoring timeout and restraint. Schools must notify state officials within 48 hours of an intervention. The state board opened complaints against eight districts named in “The Quiet Rooms.” Already, schools have reconfigured rooms, removing doors and turning these spaces into more welcoming places.

Permanent rules: The state board plans to make its emergency rules permanent this spring. One proposal would ban prone restraint, in which children are held face down on the ground. Other proposed rules would require additional training that includes de-escalation techniques and behavior management.

State legislation: Members of the General Assembly have proposed bills banning seclusion and severely limiting physical restraint. They held a hearing in early January and plan to vote on legislation in May. 

Federal action: U.S. senators and 10 members of Congress, all but one from Illinois, urged federal education officials to issue guidance to schools to ban seclusion, limit restraints and encourage “evidence-based alternatives.” A federal bill to ban seclusion is being revived.

Techniques/technologies used:

To provide the most thorough and systematic analysis of seclusion and restraint across the state, we designed a database and hand-entered details from 35,000 incidents at more than 100 school districts. That allowed us to determine the total number of interventions, the average length of time children were secluded, the most commonly-used restraints, and much more. 

The database compiling details of students’ experiences with seclusion and restraint for the first time. Though most of the database was entered by hand into a Google sheet, reporters used optical character recognition software and programming to clean and load some data when possible.

A robust data diary and data dictionary also were maintained in a Google sheet.

The presentation from beginning to end had innovative elements intended to seamlessly weave narrative with data through a combination of text, photos, video portraits, documents and interactives. These components helped readers to gain a child’s-eye view of the issue as well as see the scale of use  across the state.

– The animated panorama was created using javascript and an iPhone panoramo setting.

– The interactive map was created using mapbox, javascript and jQuery.

– Evidentiary documents were made zoomable with a javascript library called drift-zoom.

– We used FOIA to obtain floorplans and recreated different rooms on the same scale using Lightwave 3D modelling.

– To demonstrate techniques of restraint we used FOIA and attended a real training session used models to show the approaches. We drew over the photos with Adobe Illustrator.



What was the hardest part of this project?

Although Illinois law required schools to document each incident of seclusion and restraint of a student in detail, there was no requirement that the state — or any monitor — review them. That meant that no one had ever collected the incident reports.

A number of school districts refused to turn over records; a lawyer for the media organizations interceded, leading to the release of additional documents. And officials at almost every school contacted by reporters refused to allow them to view the seclusion rooms, or even to step inside the buildings. Reporters then submitted public records requests for floor plans, images and other records that would show the rooms. Some districts refused to even provide those, citing public safety concerns. We asked children to draw pictures of the rooms. We ended up publishing some of the school-supplied photos and student drawings.

Reporters traveled the state to speak with families, school employees and advocates. They interviewed more than 120 people for the story, many of them in person in their homes or in local coffee shops, restaurants and libraries.

What can others learn from this project?

This project was a partnership between the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, and the two lead reporters on the project worked side by side through every step of the story. But the collaboration also included members of the visual, editing and production teams at both news organizations. In short, innovation is enhanced by collaboration.

The unique visual presentation of “The Quiet Rooms” seamlessly integrates text, photography, silent video portraits, annotated documents and interactives. The first image readers encounter is a panning video of a padded seclusion room, accompanied by heart-wrenching quotes from children that school workers wrote down while documenting isolated timeouts. ProPublica creative story technologist Agnes Chang created the opener using panoramic photos taken by the Chicago Tribune’s Zbigniew Bzdak.

To make it easier for readers to examine annotated documents without clicking away from the story, the project team built a zoom feature. Two interactive data tools — one on seclusion, the other on restraint — allow readers to look up their school district’s use of these practices.

To work in collaboration, the two newsrooms needed to be both innovative and flexible. The teams split up tasks; for example, the Tribune built the lookup tools and other visual elements, while the ProPublica team focused on the stunning opening experience. A coordinated design process ensured the presentations on each website were identical.

Finally, publishing the stories under a Creative Commons license (typical for ProPublica but a first for the Tribune) meant other news outlets could — and did — republish the work. The republication and widespread citations of the stories permitted many more people to learn about this issue and begin to take action. ​

Project links: