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DeKalb School District says police can no longer fine students for in-class behavior

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Peter Medlin
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Documents showing some of the fines levied against students for in-school incidents. The cells labeled "coll" are when debts were sent to a collections agency.

In early March of this year, a 12-year-old student was caught with marijuana at Clinton-Rosette Middle School in DeKalb. On top of their school’s choice of discipline -- whether it be detention, suspension or expulsion -- school police also issued them a $750 fine. Two months later, that debt was sent to collections, where they now owe $1,147.50.

Steve Lekkas is the commander in charge of community services and the school resource officer program at the DeKalb Police Department. He says that’s unusual.

“It's very rare that I've seen any fines levied against kids,” he said. “Because, again, what ends up happening is it just punishes the parents.”

But a public records request by WNIJ found that since 2019 there have been more than 60 student fine debts sent to collections in DeKalb. Additionally, several student fines were paid and closed out before collections agencies could get involved. Most owed between $800 and the nearly $1,200 the Clinton-Rosette student's family must pay.

These student tickets are mostly issued because of fighting or marijuana, which become city ordinance violations like “fighting within the city” or “possession of cannabis.”

State law prohibits schools from using fines as discipline, but police can when students are referred to them.

Not every police department tickets students. Some school districts have a “memorandum of understanding” with police and school resource officers asking them not to issue citations for minor disciplinary issues.

Since ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune’s “The Price Kids Pay” investigation, Illinois State Superintendent Carmen Ayala urged schools to stop working with police to issue tickets for in-school behavior incidents.

“If your district/schools are engaging in this practice," said Ayala, "I implore you to immediately stop and consider both the cost and the consequences of these fines."

In DeKalb, superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said in a statement to WNIJ that the district’s new agreement with school resource officers eliminates the use of fines for student violations.

“The agreement provides that if citations are issued to students by the SROs," said Garcia-Sanchez, "the appropriate disposition shall be an order requiring community service.”

DeKalb Police commander Steve Lekkas says that not every ticket issued prior to that agreement resulted in a fine

Since 2019, DeKalb Police have issued a total of 212 tickets to students for in-school behavior, many resolved without financial penalty.

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Peter Medlin
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Lekkas says their goal is to connect students to resources that help them stay out of trouble. Most often, that happens through DeKalb County’s Early Risk Assessment Project.

Michael Venditti is the director of DeKalb County Court Services, which operates the project. He says it’s a free program where youth who are arrested or ticketed for the first time are diverted away from the juvenile court system and into intervention services like mental health counseling.

It’s been around since 2014. He says one of the most important things they do is a risk assessment.

“A young person that gets caught with marijuana in school, the knee-jerk reaction is to say ‘we need to get them into Substance Abuse intervention services.’ The risk assessment is gonna take an objective look at what's going on with that kid,” he said. “It’s going to tell us what’s leading up to that particular behavior. If there’re other circumstances that have led them to use drugs or alcohol or making questionable decisions about bringing things like that to school.”

The Early Risk Assessment Project is designed to take six months, but it can be finished much more quickly. Venditti says the program has boasted a less than 1% recidivism rate.

He adds that students who participate in this program won’t have to pay a fine and would get the arrest off their record. However, many of these student tickets are ordinance violations that, by Illinois state law, can’t be expunged.

Many other schools in the WNIJ listening area also ticketed students. At Rockford Public Schools, students were ticketed only ticketed 24 times during the 2020-21 school year when students learned in a blended online and in-person schedule. This past year, the number ballooned back up to 177, which is around the yearly rate from prior to the pandemic.

Students in Sandwich and other districts were ticketed for truancy in the past three years, even though it’s against state law. Neither the Sandwich Police Department nor the head of Rockford Public Schools’ school resource division returned a request for comment.

Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a statement this spring that he wants to make sure fining students for in-class behavior “doesn’t happen anywhere in the state of Illinois” and that he’s expecting to see legislation addressing it.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.