The McHenry Police Department is housed at the McHenry Municipal Center on Green St. The department has partnered with MCHS to send student resource officers to the school. (Allie Everhart)
The McHenry Police Department is housed at the McHenry Municipal Center on Green St. The department has partnered with MCHS to send student resource officers to the school.

Allie Everhart

This is fine

A ProPublica and Chicago Tribune investigation revealed police officers issue costly fines to minors for misbehavior at school, which poses the question: What place do these tickets have at MCHS?

May 19, 2022

A McHenry High School student carrying an e-cigarette walks out of the bathroom when he notices a student resource officer staring right at him. Doing his job, the SRO issues a ticket to be resolved in court. Throughout the process, the student is astounded not because he got caught but because he was unaware tickets with costly fines could be issued in schools.

In late April, the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica co-published “The Price Kids Pay,” an ongoing investigation on how schools and police departments address student misbehavior. MCHS was named as a school where students receive tickets for a variety of violations.

These tickets can carry harsh consequences for students. Though an adjudication citation, or ticket, does not affect a student’s criminal record, they can come with hefty fines that create financial hardships for families. If a student is unable to pay the fine, some municipalities, including McHenry, send the debt to collections. Some collection agencies will then deduct from a parent’s paycheck or tax returns to pay the debt.

If a student is able to pay the fine or wants to contest the ticket, they will have to report to a court hearing, which usually takes place during the school day and forces a student to miss school — negatively impacting a student even more.

Context

Allie Everhart

Security guards and deans at both campuses are usually the first responders when behavior issues arise at the school, but an Illinois law restricts them from issuing tickets to students.

Context

The ProPublica / Chicago Tribune investigation’s first installment found that students received over 11,800 tickets in the past three school years. Most tickets were for municipal ordinance violations like littering, truancy, vaping and fighting — and could carry fines as high as $750.

The problem? By issuing tickets, schools and police departments violate the intent of two Illinois laws set in place to protect students. These laws were Illinois’ attempts at reducing the “school-to-prison pipeline” and fairly consequencing children.

Since 2015’s amendment to SB0100, Section I states that “a student may not be issued a monetary fine or fee as a disciplinary consequence, though this shall not preclude requiring a student to provide restitution for lost, stolen, or damaged property.”

Four years later, ILCS 5/26-12 was also modified. Section B states that “a school may not refer a truant … minor to another local public entity … for that local public entity to issue the child a fine or fee as a punishment for his or her truancy.”

While SB100 aims to protect students, its language is vague and does not clarify who can or cannot issue a fine. Since schools are within the police department’s jurisdiction, student resource officers are able to ticket students — which has been the case at MCHS — without breaking the law, only the intent of the law. 

With 255 tickets over three years, MCHS sits at number seven for most issued tickets in Illinois high schools, at least for the schools investigated by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune. According to their database, MCHS students most often received tickets for possessing tobacco or electronic cigarettes and disorderly conduct. Following the 2019 truancy law, truant students have received no tickets.

The students

Maddie Canada

Freshman Kaitlyn Neville received a ticket in April for her involvement in a fight. Though she says she was only defending herself, she was given a suspension from the school and fined by the police.

The students

Freshman Kaitlyn Neville was only looking to defend herself when she received a ticket and a court date for a fight she did not start.

“I do not think the ticket was justified because the girl came onto me,” Neville said. She adds that growing tensions led to her reaching out to admin. “Then the fight happened. I had no choice but to defend myself.”

Neville explained that receiving the ticket was simple; Freshman Campus SRO Paul Prather had delivered it to her house. He also explained how Neville was to resolve the ticket — something she has not been able to do yet. 

“The ticket asked me to appear in court,” Neville said. “It didn’t state anything else on it. The dean gave me and the girl an opportunity to talk to one another and we did, but the [conversation] didn’t go anywhere; she wanted no part in resolving it. My court date isn’t for another month.”

As ProPublica and Chicago Tribune reporters found, students often receive disciplinary action through their schools in addition to the ticket. In this case, Neville received a three-day out-of-school suspension.

“I missed three days because [of the fight] and it definitely impacted my grades,” she said. “I was a student who struggled through Zoom learning so it was really hard to work on my assignments and stay motivated at home.”

Motivation is not the only thing that took a toll — Neville’s mental health did too. 

“I feel that [the ticket and OSS] declined my mental health because of the stress of dealing with all this by myself and simply the fact that I got in trouble for defending myself really upset me,” she said.

Based on her experiences, Neville believes ticketing is not an effective way to address student behavior.

“I personally feel [tickets are] a waste of time and money,” she said. “If [the ticket] gets wiped clean after we graduate, what was the point? Especially for the kids whose parents pay for it, it’s a waste of money for something that really wasn’t that big.”

The principal

Allie Everhart

MCHS Principal Jeff Prickett admits that fines for student misbehavior could provide a hardship on families who can’t afford it, but that many consequences in the real world carry fines. He also hopes that, in the future, MCHS can reserve tickets for only the most extreme cases.

The principal

Due to its ticketing practices, MCHS was mentioned several times in the first “The Price Kids Pay” article. MCHS Principal Dr. Jeff Prickett had defended ticketing as a way “to restore justice.”

“What I meant by tickets as a way to restore justice is that when a student receives a ticket, what usually happens [is that] it does not go on the permanent record,” Prickett said. “But, what it does is act as a way to introduce the student and family to a system that can eventually provide them with resources.”

Regarding the possession or use of controlled substances — a common offense at MCHS — Prickett adds, “A judge is usually going to say you have to do so many hours of community service and go through Rosecrance, who provides drug and alcohol counseling. That provides [students] with the resources they need in order to get better and restore what they’ve done.”

A concern in the ProPublica and Chicago Tribune investigation has been the financial burden a ticket’s fine could impose on families. Additional administrative and court hearing fees can reach up to $150 — or more if a student chooses to contest the ticket.

Should MCHS students receive a fine for misbehavior in the school buildings?

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“I recognize the fact that [a ticket] can provide a hardship for a family who may already be struggling, and I empathize with families,” Prickett said. “It’s a hard one because on the other side of the coin there is that fact that out in the community … there are consequences to actions … and if you are doing something that is illegal, or in possession of something that is illegal, there is a consequence for that. Unfortunately, a lot of the time there are financial consequences to that.”

Hours after the first “The Price Kids Pay” article was published, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen Ayala sent schools an email condemning ticketing practices. She explained how a hypothetical $250 fine could be a week’s groceries, gas for the month, an electricity bill or a heating bill. Ayala also emphasized the responsibility of educators to serve families from diverse circumstances, such as the more than 50% of Illinois families who qualify as low-income. 

“Multiple state laws in the Illinois School Code intend to prohibit the practice,” she wrote. “However, some school districts have found loopholes between the Illinois School Code and the Municipal Code and abdicated their responsibility for student discipline to local law enforcement. If your district/schools are engaging in this practice, I implore you to immediately stop and consider both the cost and consequences of these fines.” 

Though ticketing continues at MCHS, Prickett is aware of Ayala’s statement and sees a future where only the “most egregious and extreme circumstances” receive tickets. He cites student behavior as one of the things MCHS spends “a lot of time on.”

“We have two deans here [at the Upper Campus] and one dean at the Freshman Campus. [Addressing behavior] is what they do all day long,” he said. “I think that we should start at the root of the problem, finding out why a student is behaving in a certain way, especially if it is a repeat behavior and they do it over and over again despite the consequences. We then have to figure out what we’re doing wrong and address it differently. That takes time though and resources — human resources.”

The deans

Maddie Canada

Pete Byrne, the dean at the Freshman Campus, believes that consequences for student behavior should come from the school and home. He says that tickets could encourage parents to play a more active role in helping correct misbehavior.

The deans

While MCHS has two resource officers through its partnership with the McHenry Police Department, the individuals addressing most behavioral issues are the three deans of students.

“The McHenry Police has someone stationed here for the same reason you might have someone stationed at a mall or … anywhere where there’s a large population of people, like a concert,” Dean Hilary Agnello said. “It’s supposed to be a deterrent. If you were at a concert and [the police] saw underage drinking, the police would do the same exact thing they do in this building. It’s a public place. [Sam Shafer, Upper Campus’ SRO] just happens to be stationed here.”

When deans address behavior, issuing a ticket is not always the first option — or an option at all. Different behaviors and their severities receive an appropriate response.

“[Referring someone to the SRO] depends on what the student is doing,” Agnello said. “I include Officer Shafer into discussion when I know the action would violate the law outside these walls. I know that if a kid has drugs on them outside these walls, they’d be ticketed. Same thing [here]. In the same token, I don’t refer [a student] to Officer Shafer if they swear to a teacher because you can swear at anybody all you want outside.”

Despite the need to address behavior, deans recognize that a student might be struggling and that those struggles lead to misbehavior. Freshman Campus Dean Peter Byrne adds that parents have a level of responsibility for their child’s behavior.

“I believe everything starts in the home,” he said. “I think kids are jammed up with all kinds of problems: social, emotional, economic, sometimes even physical. It all starts in the home … Before kids are 18, parents are responsible for their behavior … If their kid drives down the street drunk and hits someone, that kid is going to be responsible, but the parents are also going to be liable for some of that stuff too.”

Byrne also recognizes that often a parent will pay the ticket’s fine and not the student; however, he adds that the ticket can provide access to resources and make a parent aware of their child’s behavior. 

“Drugs, vaping, fighting — they all go with a suspension,” he said. “After the suspension is over, we have something called a reentry meeting. At the meeting, several staff members, who all work with the kid, try to give them as much support as [they] can. One of the problems we [have] is that kids that are in poor home situations a lot of the time don’t have support. They don’t know that [therapy, talking to someone and other resources] can help them.”

Byrne adds that once parents are aware of behavior through the ticket, they should be helping their kids, and many do not. “If the kid can’t be held accountable and we can’t teach the parents to hold the kid accountable,” he said, “then what other thing is there? Worst case scenario, we want a parent at home saying ‘enough you made me spend $400 to correct your behavior’ and start getting more active in realizing that [the behavior] will continue.”

As deans with first-hand experience in disciplining students, Agnello and Byrne believe ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune’s “The Price Kids Pay” does not accurately represent what goes into issuing consequences for behavior.

“The thing I have with this situation is that I feel that the research that went into it had intentions of presenting an angle that almost puts schools in a dangerous place,” Agnello said. “If you are allowed to bring a weapon that is illegal or drugs in this building, and you don’t have legal consequences, we would turn this place into a very scary place [for parents] to bring their kids. I think we should guard these walls and protect the people way more … ”

Bringing weapons to school is not allowed and is illegal. Senate Bill 100 aims to meet school threats with the harshest forms of punishment. ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune’s investigation was only focused on minor misbehavior like vaping and fighting. 

Byrne adds that each behavioral infraction is complex, and ticketing or not ticketing is not so simple. 

“I think that we need to be careful about painting all this stuff into one nice neat package,” he said. “It’s not all nice and easy … every fight is not the same. There are fights we don’t give tickets for. It depends on the situation. I think this article is another example of the media spinning a narrative that is unfair, untrue and needs to be explored more.” 

“I guarantee you one thing,” he concludes, “[the reporters] are not a dean, are not an SRO, and have spent very little time in schools. They don’t even know what’s going on in schools. The kids in school today are not the kids that were in the classroom five years ago.”

The police

Allie Everhart

Though the school does not issue tickets for misbehavior, the districts student resource officers can. Deputy Chief Thomas Welsh from the McHenry police department does not believe this is in violation of an Illinois law that states “a student may not be issued a monetary fine or fee as a disciplinary consequence.”

The police

Due to McHenry Police Department regulations, MCHS’s SROs could not comment on ticketing practices. Instead, Deputy Chief Thomas Welsh provided information on behalf of the police department.

Welsh clarified that SROs only issue tickets for violations of city ordinances such as disorderly conduct and vaping. While a city ordinance for truancy exists, SROs let school administrations handle the situation unless it is extreme. Additionally, he says officers do not issue tickets for violations of district rules, policies and procedures listed in the student handbook.

“If a SRO becomes aware of a criminal matter with a student, the first step is a conversation to try and determine the root cause of the issue,” Welsh said. “If this is a series of ongoing issues or serious enough offense, the SRO has options on how to address the matter. The lowest level of enforcement a SRO can take is the issuance of an adjudication citation … [these] do not affect a student’s criminal record. SROs can also issue a citation requiring an offender appear in front of a judge of the 22nd Judicial Circuit in Woodstock.”

According to the deputy chief, tickets do not usually impact the criminal record and serve as a deterrent to keep a student out of the criminal justice system.

“While there are exceptions, it is not often that a student repeats the same offense after being issued an adjudication citation,” Welsh said. “The school administration would discipline their students for violations of their code of conduct. All our officers are charged with enforcing the laws of the State of Illinois and the ordinances of the City of McHenry within the city limits. As the schools fall within our jurisdiction, the SROs take appropriate enforcement action with a student just as if the violation occurred off school property.”

Since the ProPublica / Chicago Tribune investigation, there has been controversy over the wording of Senate Bill 100, which forbids schools from fining students. Since schools fall within the police department’s jurisdiction to take enforcement action, issuing a ticket does not seemingly violate the law. District 156’s attorney did not respond to our request for comment.

“The McHenry Police Department does not agree with the insinuation that the school district is working around the language in Senate Bill 100 when a SRO issues an adjudication citation,” Welsh said. “While they are assigned to the high schools, SROs are first and foremost police officers. If they witness or are aware of a criminal offense or a violation of a City ordinance, they are required to take appropriate action, regardless if it occurred on school property or not. Sometimes that enforcement action results in the offending student being issued an adjudication citation.”

Since they do not see ticketing students as a violation of the law, the McHenry Police Department and District 156 continue to have a partnership that allows SROs to be present in schools.

“The police department and MCHS District 156 have a great partnership on many levels, including the placement of SROs in the high schools,” Welsh said. “Together we will discuss, evaluate and, if necessary, adjust the SRO program with the intention, as always, of the SROs having positive relationships with students and staff.”

Conclusions

Allie Everhart

According to a report from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica, not all students who receive tickets as a disciplinary consequence get to make their case in court. In McHenry, some hearings take place at the McHenry Municipal Center on Green St.

Conclusions

As the student walks out of court in Woodstock having paid a hefty fine, he is delighted to read the news that Gov. J.B. Pritzker is working to close loopholes in the law that resulted in his ticket and that state programs are putting a stop to ticket debt collection. He dreams of a future where behavior — especially drug and e-cigarette offenses — is met with the proper reaction: helping students through their issues.

As of now, student ticketing continues at MCHS as the police department and district continue to work under an unclear and vague law. Many do not agree with ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune’s portrayal of the issue but generally all parties involved want the same thing: to address student behavior in a way that is both meaningful and just.

 

Additional reporting for this story by Grace Hunt; additional photography by Maddie Canada

About the Contributors
Photo of Vanessa Moreno
Vanessa Moreno, Staff Writer
Vanessa Moreno is a senior at McHenry High School's Upper Campus. She loves physics, history and writing news stories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading dark fiction and listening to music. This is Vanessa's second year on the Messenger's staff.

Recognition:

IJEA Fall Journalism Convention Write-Offs (first in News Writing)

"This is fine" (Best of SNO)

2022 IHSA Sectionals (second in News Writing)
Photo of Allie Everhart
Allie Everhart, Contributing Photographer
Allie Everhart is a junior at McHenry High School's Upper Campus. She enjoys editing, photography, running and investigating. After school, she runs for MCHS's cross country team. This is Allie's second year on the Messenger's staff.

Recognition:

“Masks no longer required in most public places in Illinois” (IJEA)

2022 IHSA State (first in Photo Storytelling)

2022 IHSA Sectionals (third in Photo Storytelling)