Criminalizing Illinois students flouts law to reduce school-to-prison pipeline

School buses are seen parked behind a locked bus depot fence in the Queens borough of New York
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

(Reuters) - Illinois school districts have been routinely referring students who misbehave to local police that fine them for municipal violations, a practice that flouts a law passed in 2015 meant to stem the flow of the student-to-prison pipeline.

Illinois lawmakers seven years ago enacted laws to curb overly punitive school discipline policies that have pushed disproportionate numbers of Black and other minority students out of school and into the criminal justice system, often for typical childhood misbehavior.

Among other measures, the 2015 school discipline reform bill, known as SB 100, made exclusionary discipline a last resort, which means that out-of-school suspensions and expulsions can only apply in cases where a child’s continued presence poses a safety threat or interferes with operation of the school.

Illinois' school discipline reform act was widely considered to be one of the most far-reaching efforts to address the national school-to-prison pipeline problem.

And, generally speaking, the state's school districts have indeed adopted a more a restorative approach, focused on repairing the harm caused by a student's misbehavior rather than pure punishment — for example, convincing a child who hits another to apologize, rather than automatic suspension, according to an NPR Illinois report in December 2017 .

But some of the reform measures have also been seriously undermined by local school administrators and officials themselves.

Educators in Illinois have been relying more on transfers to alternative schools, for example — even though that approach increases the risk of some of the same negative outcomes as expulsion and suspension, like dropping out. About 1,560 such transfers occurred in the school year before the law was enacted, but that number jumped to 2,161 two years afterward, according to a 2019 article in the DuPage County Bar Association journal.

Much more troubling, teachers and administrators across the state have been routinely referring students’ misbehavior to local police, turning disciplinary issues that might have previously warranted a trip to the principal’s office into law enforcement matters, according to an analysis published April 28 by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica

The police issue costly tickets to students that carry long-term consequences, including tagging kids with a record and harming future credit scores. And the money extracted from families funds the system itself: It pays for lawyers who prosecute the students and for hearing officers who rule on the cases, according to the Tribune.

The practice has persisted despite that Illinois' new laws say that a “student may not be issued a monetary fine or fee as a disciplinary consequence” — and even though officials can still rely on police for actual crimes on school grounds.

Many students have been fined up to $200 or more for carrying a vape pen or skipping class, for example. One 12-year-old was cited for assault and disturbing the peace for shoving his friend over a Lipton iced tea in the cafeteria.

The pattern of outsourcing children’s disciplinary issues to law enforcement reflects a broader national trend that unnecessarily exacerbates the consequences of adolescent misbehavior, especially for Black kids, and it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding by many administrators of the serious detrimental effects to students and their families.

In Illinois, the practice also appears to be an open and continuing violation of law.

The Illinois Principals Association didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Illinois Association of School Administrators also declined my requests.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s offices didn’t respond to questions about whether the practice of referring students to police for ticketing violates the 2015 laws.

The report is "concerning," and the attorney general's office "is reviewing the information" that was reported, a spokesperson told me.

Students of color and students with disabilities are subject to discipline at much higher rates than their white classmates, and data is beginning to show that LGBTQ students are also more frequently targeted.

The U.S. Department of Education has consistently found that Black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

School districts and legislators across the country are beginning to recognize these problems, but many are looking to alternatives that produce some of the same detrimental outcomes — and others are simply continuing practices that undermine reform.

The Department of Education reported in June 2021 that “there was an overall 2% decline in the use of exclusionary discipline practices” in public schools from the 2015-16 school year to 2017-18. But the report also found that "three types of discipline practices increased": school-related arrests; expulsions with educational services; and referrals to law enforcement.

This “criminalization of school discipline” disproportionately harms students of color, and further exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline, according to a 2016 report by the American Bar Association.

Notably, studies also suggest that these disparities may be better explained by educators’ implicit biases, rather than differences in student behavior. That suggests the persistence of these problems around the country may also be linked to bias.

Illinois officials told the Tribune that school districts and police are exploiting a “loophole” in the law; some administrators suggested the practice is lawful because the schools aren't the issuer of the tickets.

But authors of the legislation said school districts sometimes simply refuse to follow the law, and the chief sponsor said the police-ticketing practice is “in opposition” to the law.

Indeed, the plain language of the statute simply prohibits fines as a “disciplinary consequence” — regardless of whom the issuer might be.

Jackie Ross, an attorney at Loyola University Chicago’s Child Law Clinic, told me that some officials have also said that Illinois' school code only governs what school boards and their employees can do. But officials haven't pointed to any explicit limiting provision; and, in fact, Illinois' school code regulates even the conduct of county boards and their members.

The Illinois Board of Education urged school administrators to stop the practice just hours after the Tribune report.

Still, legislators and other officials could do much more to prevent violations of the 2015 law, and the resulting harms caused to mostly Black and minority students.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at