When his son, a student at Waterloo High School, received a citation and related fine for possessing an e-cigarette as a minor at school, Brad Cook found the practice problematic.
As he later learned, he is not alone in his opinion.
According to a police report Cook shared with the Republic-Times, his son was called to the school office after administration had recovered a blue “Puff XTRA Limited” vape from his locker.
Waterloo School Resource Officer Shaun Wiegand responded to a call from the high school principal and eventually it was determined the vape did not appear to have THC in it. Through further research, Wiegand determined the vape contained 5 percent nicotine, his report said.
Wiegand then issued a citation for violation of the city ordinance that prohibits minors from possessing alternative nicotine products. Cook’s son also received a three-day suspension.
Cook’s son was fined $100 for violating the ordinance, which Waterloo Police Chief Jeff Prosise explained is set in the ordinance, along with $170 in court costs, which is not set in the ordinance.
According to the ordinance, first conviction fines cannot exceed $50, second conviction fines cannot exceed $75 and third “or subsequent” conviction payment is limited to $100.
Cook said this was his son’s second time receiving a ticket for an ordinance violation relating to this offense. The first time, he said, his son received three months of court supervision.
Waterloo City Attorney Natalie Steppig said there is a separate city ordinance that specifies fines for ordinance violations must be “no less than $100, but no more than $750.”
Due to Cook’s son being a minor, Prosise could not reveal specifics of this case, yet said that since the beginning of the year, Waterloo police have issued 11 citations for ordinance violations in Waterloo schools.
The vast majority of which are for possessing vapes.
A ProPublica and Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that police ticketing students for ordinance violations is not a novel idea. Because Illinois law prohibits schools from fining students as discipline, students are referred to the police, who can then cite them for ordinance violations, this April 28 report said.
These violations spanned from vaping to fighting, truancy and possessing pepper spray, the report found.
Cook’s concerns about the practice often coincide with those parents and family members of students featured in the investigative report.
At its base, Cook said it is an ethical question: if schools are prohibited from fining kids as a form of punishment, then is it OK for police to do so for ordinance violations committed on school grounds?
And, he said, how might this impact the students’ perception of law enforcement?
“The only relationship (my son) has with the police now is negative,” Cook said.
He also called the process a “money grab.”
Cook and his son were given two options, he said: they could hire an attorney and pay the fees associated with legal counsel to protest the ticket, or pay the $270.
Because his son did not have $270 on hand, Cook’s name was on the check delivered during his son’s court appearance. His son’s punishment included paying his dad back every single cent, a three-day suspension and additional punishment Cook had set.
To accompany his son in court, Cook had to take off time from work. This, and the fees incurred from the court and ordinance violation, cannot easily be fronted by some families, Cook said.
As the ProPublica and Chicago Tribune investigation found in talking to several Illinois families, this can mean choosing between paying a utility bill and paying off their child’s fees.
“It’s basically a poor man’s poll tax,” Cook said.
In a letter sent to Illinois schools just one day after the ProPublica article was published, Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala asked districts to “consider” how fines can impact families and if they are actually preventing offenses from continuing.
“There is no evidence that issuing costly tickets and taking away valuable learning time leads to any positive changes in students’ behavior. There is no evidence that tickets lead to fewer fights or less vaping. Rather than improve truancy, they may actually worsen student attendance,” Ayalya wrote in a letter to Illinois districts. “The only consequences of the tickets are to impose a financial burden on already struggling families and to make students feel even less cared for, less welcome and less included at a school, which in turn leads to more antisocial and defiant behavior.”
Yet, Steppig said that from what she has seen, the ordinance violation tickets appear to be working as a deterrent. Stepping and the police department work with students and their families to make sure interventions and any consequences that may be set forth by the court are feasible for each family while addressing the problem effectively, she added.
“I don’t see repeat offenders for the most part. That to me says it’s working,” Steppig said, later stating, “We are trying to be flexible with the students … It is never our goal to create any type of hardship for a family.”
She said if it is a student’s first ticketed offense, they are offered court supervision unless they have separate offenses.
How schools handle ordinances differs from a district-to-district basis.
For instance, Columbia Police Chief Jason Donjon said this academic year, no students had been ticketed for vaping or possessing a vape, which is also a city ordinance violation in Columbia. The punishments for such behavior, Columbia High School principal Brian Reeves said, are handled largely by the school.
Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron said his school district and Waterloo police have a reciprocal reporting relationship, which means the two entities may share appropriate information with the goal of keeping schools safe.
Even aside from this agreement, Charron said it is common practice to let police know if there is any ordinance violation or safety concern. From there, the police decide if they wish to cite the student if their behavior violates a city ordinance.
“When we come across those things, we let police know,” Charron said, stating ticketing can act as a deterrent.
Previously, Cook had shared the ProPublica piece with Charron, to which Charron responded he would “entertain discussion with our local law enforcement and Board of Education” regarding how the district interacts with law enforcement regarding city ordinance violations on school grounds.
“We do want to deter illegal acts and behaviors in our schools so that our schools remain a safe place for learning. We have long believed that cooperating with law enforcement is beneficial in our efforts. Regardless, this is a topic worthy of discussion,” Charron wrote to Cook in an email provided to the Republic-Times.
Charron elaborated that should the school board decide it “no longer wanted to enforce city ordinances on school property” or if the ordinance changed, it would no longer enforce it.
Cook said he is also concerned the questioning of his son violated a state law which amended the school code to specify that “before (school security personnel can detain and question) a student on school grounds who is under 18 years of age and who is suspected of committing a criminal act,” efforts must be made to ensure the parent is present.
If the parent cannot be there, the act states, a trained mental health professional should be present during the questioning.
Cook said when his son called him, administrators and the school resource officer were present in the room, which he said could possibly limit what was said on the phone. He said his child was detained without him being notified.
Cook told Charron about this concern, and Charron directed him to speak with the Waterloo Police Department, as Wiegand is employed by the police department, not the school district, if he wished to file a complaint.
In his response, Charron said the nature of the incident was not criminal.
“These ordinance violations were not criminal (and therefore the law is not applicable),” Steppig said.
However, Cook maintains that in order to determine if the matter was criminal – if the vape contained THC – his son was questioned.
“They really walked the line of ‘criminal,’” Cook said.
Cook said he is “not ruling out” seeking legal action. However, he said that is not his main goal.
“For me, the ultimate solution is for them to stop (citing students),” he said. “My main concern is that it doesn’t happen to a less fortunate family who is going to be more impacted by missing work or paying fines.”