A panel of education and legal experts spoke Tuesday on how and why Illinois school districts should amend practices of referring minor cases of student discipline to their local police departments for tickets and potential fines.
The webinar was hosted by reporters of ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, focusing on the findings of their recent collaboration on a series of articles called “Ticketed at School.”
Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said it was through that series’ research that he learned last April that some of his own district’s schools had been doing this, and that he had been unknowingly misinforming his board that school resource officers were used purely for support rather than discipline.
“It was a shock to me as the superintendent of the state’s second-largest school district,” he said. “It was a shock to me that we tried to address.”
Sanders explained that U-46 lies in several municipalities and that not every police department was handling the situation the same way.
The Elgin Police Department never really used such ticketing whereas others did. In that regard, U-46 is a microcosm of Illinois, Sanders said.
One of the ways his district immediately set about changing things was to define what violations of the student code of conduct required police involvement, such as the presence of weapons, and which, like truancy, vaping and alcohol use, would not be.
He said the difference in approach to being caught vaping at school instead of at the mall is that at school a student is meant to be surrounded by people there to mentor and redirect them.
Jeff Aranowski, executive director for Safe and Healthy Climate at the State Board of Education, pointed out that the school code specifically bars districts from charging fines for disciplinary offenses and from referring students to the police for truancy.
Jackie Ross of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law suggested that the quickest legislative fix to the disconnect between the school code and the municipal code would be to expand the definition of disciplinary issues for which schools couldn’t refer students to the police.
In the wake of the first “Ticketed at School” article, State Superintendent Carmen Ayala called on Illinois school districts to cease abdicating their disciplinary responsibilities to local law enforcement.
David Eterno, an administrative law judge and hearing officer, said municipalities themselves could also be limiting the ability of someone like himself to tailor an appropriate response for a ticketed student by setting a flat fine as high as $400 for disorderly conduct.
Compared to the teachable moment that could have been delivered at school, a $400 fine to a student from a low-income family doesn’t provide much effective learning, Eterno said.
“It doesn’t do justice to the respondent.” he added.