Education Center Student's Work Presented at Noteworthy Academic Convention

November 28, 2017

sabrtita_thurman_newbyA graduate student enrolled at the Tallahassee (FL) Education Office enjoys the distinction of being the first Saint Leo University student to give an oral presentation during an international convention of Pi Gammu Mu, which honors excellence in social sciences. Sabrita Thurman-Newby, a candidate for a master’s degree in criminal justice, spoke at the convention on her analysis of the Broken Windows Theory as it is applied to policing, criminal justice reform, racial profiling, and related topics.

Thurman-Newby’s faculty advisor, Phillip R. Neely Jr., PhD, encouraged her to present her work at the convention. He also presented on the same topic, but at a separate session. Both consider the Broken Windows Theory an important real-world topic to discuss because of the influence it has had on the strategies employed by local police forces since the 1990s, and the unintended consequences its interpretation and application has had on poorer communities and neighborhoods, and upon African-Americans.

The Broken Windows Theory, first introduced in 1982, became so widely applied and recognized that it comes up in news stories and even in story lines of fictional television drama, such asThe Good Wife. In brief, the social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling wrote in a magazine article that if more police walked beats in neighborhood and paid attention to smaller problems—such as houses and structures with broken windows, graffiti—rather than ignoring them to focus almost solely on felonies, the neighborhoods would benefit. They reasoned that the commission of the more serious crimes flowed from the disorder that first shows up in symptoms such as ailing properties.

Thurman-Newby, who earned her bachelor’s in criminal justice at Saint Leo in 2016 (pictured above), researched the theory as well as critiques of the theory. For instance, she asked whether property in disrepair in a given area could be more correctly attributed to a lack of investment in an area, or limited economic opportunities for homeowners and residents to earn enough to improve properties, rather than deemed the source of serious crime. What if serious criminals were, in fact, different individuals than the residents, she wondered. Several other questions emerged, as well, such as whether describing a neighborhood as a Broken Windows zone—an “ugly label,” she says—is harmful to the community if multiple problems at play are not going to be addressed. Her analysis also included references to disproportionately high arrest levels of people of color in areas where application of the Broken Windows Theory has resulted in police agencies directing more resources at lower-level offenses (a topic that also interests Neely). People of color are also apt to receive harsher or longer punishments in cases of convictions, research suggest.

Taylor House Thurman-Newby’s interest in the topic is more than purely academic. “I come from Broken Windows,” she says, referring to her former neighborhood in Tallahassee (Frenchtown) since its decline from being a vital area of African-American homes and small businesses in its heyday. (Pictured: A historic home in Frenchtown.) When wider housing options became available during 20th-century integration, she says, many of the residents of color who could afford to move did so, and the natural economic and small-business base eroded. Crime increased.

Yet, as a married mother of two grown children who loves her hometown, she recalls that she has been one of the people with the inclination to encourage people to help keep up the neighborhood aesthetics, to trim trees and mow lawns. (Now she lives in a different neighborhood, the Bond Community, but still in Tallahassee.) Thurman-Newby, 53, also gets to know plenty of residents and families in her primary line of work, operating her own firm as a licensed private investigator for indigent clients. From her point of view, the Broken Windows Theory needs to be supplemented with greater opportunity “that satisfies the diversity of the residents.”

Thurman-Newby’s research was reviewed by faculty members at three other schools before she was accepted as a presenter at the convention, Neely said, where her oral presentation was well received. Neely observed that his student’s close and long-term connection to her community, along with her critique, particularly impressed the convention participants.

Neely notes that Saint Leo likes to encourage committed students to present at academic conventions, and can help pay expenses in some cases. Giving presentations helps students develop personally, and listening to other peers present helps both students and faculty stretch intellectually, he added. Conventions are also fruitful for locating mentors and opportunities for further study or employment. “We know our adult students are job seekers,” Neely said.

Thurman-Newby’s research coincided nicely with the call for submissions for this convention— which is held only once every three years. For 2017, it was held in Kansas City, MO, in early November. In addition to criminal justice, Pi Gamma Mu recognizes academic excellence in the fields of  anthropology, economics, cultural geography, history, international relations, social philosophy, social work, sociology, political science, and psychology.