The Price Kids Pay

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: ProPublica, Chicago Tribune

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-04-28

Language: English

Authors: Jodi S. Cohen, Jennifer Smith Richards


Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica, where she focuses on stories about schools and juvenile justice.

Jennifer Smith Richards is a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Her data-driven investigative work often focuses on schools and disability.

Project description:

“The Price Kids Pay” is the broadest look at school-based ticketing in the United States, documenting roughly 12,000 tickets issued to students over three years as officials exploited a loophole in Illinois law to punish children. Instead of fining students directly, which is banned, schools referred students to police, who issued tickets for violating local ordinances.

The team built a [first-of-its-kind database](https://projects.propublica.org/illinois-school-police-tickets-fines/) for public use.

Ticketing, reporters determined, was often disproportionately applied to Black students. And reporters identified dozens of districts that had broken a state law that explicitly prohibits schools from referring students to be ticketed for truancy.

Impact reached:

“The Price Kids Pay” had swift and powerful impact. Hours after the investigation’s first story was published, the state superintendent told schools to stop ticketing students. The next day, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker vowed to make changes to prevent further harm to students.

State lawmakers pledged to revisit the legislation that had tried — and failed — to prevent students from being fined at school. [The Illinois attorney general later launched an investigation](https://www.propublica.org/article/illinois-will-investigate-possible-civil-rights-violations-in-student-ticketing) into whether the state’s largest high school district had violated students’ civil rights in issuing hundreds of tickets. Officials had noticed that the district stood out in the database that ProPublica and the Tribune built and published, both for the number of tickets issued there and for racial disparities. And [the Illinois comptroller said her office](https://www.propublica.org/article/illinois-school-discipline-ticket-debt-collection) would ban local governments from using a state program to collect debt from students who were ticketed for truancy.

Some school district officials were shocked to learn how commonplace the ticketing of students had become in their high schools — and how costly the practice was for many families. Some vowed immediate changes.

Finally, some municipalities reduced the fines associated with violations of local ordinances. One severed ties with a hearing officer after reporters detailed his caustic, dismissive treatment of ticketed students.

Another story that prompted change exposed how employees at a school for students with behavioral disabilities frequently called police — and sought students’ arrest — for misbehavior. After receiving reporters’ questions, the state board of education conducted an on-site visit at the Garrison School, confirmed an overreliance on police and plans to require intensive training.

Newsrooms across the state, including at least one high school newspaper, used the data reporters had collected to publish their own stories about ticketing.

Techniques/technologies used:

The only way to comprehensively investigate school-based ticketing was for the Tribune and ProPublica to build a first-of-its kind database based on the records obtained through FOIA.

Reporters designed the database so they could not only log and analyze the data but present the information to the public in an interactive format. Some data was processed using optical character recognition tools including Tabula and PDF2Text for the command line, and Excel and Google Refine were used for some cleaning tasks.

The sources of the data were records from more than 500 school districts and police departments as well as municipalities that set the fines and penalties for tickets — thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of spreadsheets and even copies of actual tickets that officers had written.

Reporters used data points from those records to document more than 11,800 tickets issued by police in 141 school districts during three school years. In addition to logging the number of tickets issued by each police department at each school examined, reporters documented the reasons tickets had been issued, how the tickets are adjudicated in each community, fines and fees, and whether the community attempts to collect unpaid juvenile debts.

Reporters built a second database to allow analysis of the race of ticketed students. This information also was incorporated into the interactive online tool that was published with the investigation.

Data analysis was conducted using R.

To verify the accuracy of reporters’ data collection, ProPublica data staff took a sample of reporters’ database entries and compared them to the original records. The results of the reporters’ analysis and descriptions of the data findings in the stories were fact-checked by ProPublica data reporters.

Context about the project:

Reporters confronted challenges in obtaining information from more than 500 different sources. Many local agencies cited juvenile privacy laws as a reason to withhold even de-identified records, and the team successfully challenged those claims.

In creating the database, reporters often had to go through handwritten records to determine whether a ticket was issued at a school and then log the relevant data points. Some agencies had separate, antiquated systems for recording information about where tickets were issued, the types of tickets issued and the fines imposed. Reporters had to match up those records by hand to identify school-based tickets and related information.

Reporters also felt it was important to examine the race of students who were ticketed. Many agencies did not record that information, but when it was available reporters documented it in a separate database. That process often involved standardizing the many ways police officers had described a person’s race when documenting the citation. In addition, because race was included less frequently, reporters had to consider the best way to draw meaningful, but not overstated, conclusions from a smaller set of data. After consulting with a well-known researcher who studies race and discipline, reporters excluded from the racial-disparities analysis schools where tickets were rare and those where race information was missing for more than 25% of tickets. That way, schools that were outliers would not unduly influence the analysis.

To identify potential racial disparities in ticketing, reporters calculated the total enrollment for the schools in the database, as well as the total enrollment for various racial groups. They then calculated how many tickets were issued for each racial group and compared those rates to those groups’ share of total enrollment, leading to powerful findings about race and ticketing at school.

Finally, there were challenges in reporting on the ticket hearings and on the consequences of ticketing.

Illinois does not have municipal courts, and each city or town can decide how and where to adjudicate police citations. The dates and times of the hearings are often not made public, and they operate with little to no scrutiny. It is rare for attorneys, advocates, journalists or any other observers to attend. When some officials tried to eject reporters from the hearings on privacy grounds, reporters successfully argued that those laws did not apply to hearings on local ordinance violations. The news organizations’ attorneys got involved in several instances and argued that the reporters had a right to be there. Reporters ultimately attended about 50 hearings across the state, observing hundreds of cases and traveling thousands of miles.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

With a project rooted in hundreds of FOIA requests, a tracking system is crucial. Reporters created a database to log each request filed, the date it was due and whether the records were provided.

Journalists don’t have to take no for an answer. In cases where agencies denied records requests, reporters negotiated to obtain records that, while incomplete, were still valuable to the investigation.

The data itself is not enough; it is a starting point. Reporters showed up all across the state of Illinois to learn about ordinance violation hearings that previously received no scrutiny. They cultivated sources and met families affected by school-based ticketing. At one branch court, sheriff’s deputies said they hadn’t had a reporter attend a hearing in at least eight years.

It’s important to be open to sharing your reporting process and methods with others, including the subjects of your stories and the public. The Tribune and ProPublica hosted events about the reporting and found that readers wanted to know more about how the work was done, as did high school journalists and early-career reporters.

Project links: