This story was originally published by ProPublica.

From the moment Amara Harris was accused of stealing another student’s AirPods at Naperville North High School, she has insisted that it was a mix-up, not a theft.

She told a school dean that she thought the AirPods were her own, having picked them up a few days earlier in the school’s learning commons, where she said she thought she had left her own set. Her mother repeatedly told officers that her daughter hadn’t stolen the wireless earbuds, records show.

Still, the school resource officer wrote Amara a ticket in 2019 for violating a municipal ordinance against theft. Paying a fine would have made the matter go away, but Amara says she won’t admit to something she didn’t do. For two and a half years, she has repeatedly gone to court to assert her innocence, even delaying her plans to attend on-campus classes at her dream school, Spelman College.

Now, in a rare and dramatic example of the impact of school ticketing, the case is headed for a jury trial, with the next court date on Tuesday. As Naperville continues to prosecute the case, Amara and her mother have racked up far more in legal bills than the city’s highest fine would have cost them.

“I am innocent. I am fighting because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” said Amara, now 19. “Why would I say I’m innocent to everyone but then I lie in court and say I’m guilty? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

This spring, in the investigation “The Price Kids Pay,” ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune exposed the widespread practice of school officials and local police working together to ticket Illinois students for misbehavior at school, resulting in fines that can cost hundreds of dollars. Reporters documented about 12,000 tickets issued for possession of vaping devices and cannabis, disorderly conduct, truancy and other violations from August 2018 through June 2021.

Ticketing students for their behavior in school skirts a state law that bans schools from disciplining students with monetary fines. Immediately after the report was published, state officials including Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state schools superintendent said they intended to put a stop to the practice.

The superintendent, Carmen Ayala, chided schools for outsourcing discipline to police and urged them to stop. The Illinois attorney general’s office, concerned that school ticketing was violating the civil rights of students of color, launched an investigation into a large suburban high school district and said it might investigate others.

But none of the state officials addressed how to deal with pending cases of students who, like Amara, had already been ticketed.

“The governor says he wants this to stop, he wants this to end,” said Amara’s mother, Marla Baker. “We are in the middle of it.”

Amara’s family, like so many others, was thrown into a system that uses a lower standard of proof than a criminal court. People ticketed for ordinance violations can be held responsible if the allegation is deemed more likely to be true than not, and the ticket itself is considered evidence. At every turn, the system and the officials in it encourage families to admit liability and pay a fine. And most do.



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