Academic inquiry and research are exciting because they allow us to be social detectives solving perplexing puzzles in hopes of making ours a more just and better world. Plus, the moment of answering an as-yet-unknown question is a thrill that just cannot be beat. My research traverses the areas of the criminal justice system, education, politics, inequality, and quantitative methodology and often lies at the intersection of these subfields of sociology. In particular, my research is interested in analyzing and understanding how interactions with the schooling system and criminal justice system affect academic success, opportunities in adolescence and young adulthood, political behavior, and future life chances. Additionally, I believe it is important to cut across disciplines when doing research because it offers fresh approaches and frameworks and precludes recycling viewpoints that do not advance our thinking and understanding. For this reason my research attempts to be interdisciplinary and incorporates ideas from sociology, education, criminology, political science, psychology, and anthropology.
We live in a unique historical moment where police and surveillance technology regularly monitor young people in school and intervene even when student behavior is far from criminal. Understanding the causes and consequences of this arrangement is critical. I recently completed a study that examines the impact of the school security apparatus (i.e., the utilization of law enforcement and surveillance technology) on rates of crime and student victimization in school. This is a necessary undertaking since the deployment of the school security apparatus is based on the assumption that police, metal detectors, and security cameras make schools and students safer. Yet up to this point it has been unclear whether this assumption is justified. Using longitudinal panel data from the Education Longitudinal Study and a covariate adjusted gains model, I show that the school security apparatus not only fails to keep students safer than they would be without such protocols, it actually increases rates of crime and student victimization in school. Methodologically, the use of longitudinal panel data is important because it allows for a better sense of causal direction by considering changes in crime rates and student victimization as opposed to a correlation at one point in time. I am currently working on the second installment of this line of inquiry by examining the effect of the school security apparatus on civic and political participation in young adulthood. The last installment will examine the ways that law enforcement and surveillance technology impact school attachment and adoption of school values. These projects will be submitted individually to journals for publication, but they will eventually be combined, along with additional detail, into a monograph for publication at an academic press.
The second large-scale project that I have begun laying the foundation for examines educational professionals’ perceptions of student behavior—and misbehavior—and their decisions to move forward with official discipline and inclusion of the justice system. Studies continue to show that there is a discipline gap between non-white and white students, and teachers are often the first stop in the disciplinary process. It is important to understand, then, the underlying causes for differential teacher perceptions of student behavior and recommendations for disciplinary action since they have the potential to lead to entry into the criminal justice system with severe educational, social, and labor market consequences. I have written a grant proposal that is ready to submit to the Spencer Foundation to fund a field experiment that will assess teacher perceptions of student behavior and desired disciplinary response by altering the race and socioeconomic standing of a misbehaving “student” in a staged classroom scenario. This is the first iteration of a series of planned studies that will use such an experimental design. The second iteration will use a similar approach and assess school resource officers’ perceptions of student behavior and disciplinary response. The third iteration will change the setting of the experiment to the community and will assess police officers’ perceptions of adult behavior and officer response by varying the “offenders” race and SES. Like the initial portion of this line of research, I will be pursuing external funding to help field both the second and third iterations. It is my hope that these studies will allow for a deeper understanding of the differential treatment of individuals by influential social institutions.
Although my work is primarily focused on the intersection of education, the criminal justice system, inequality, and the political arena, this is not my sole area of academic inquiry and research. I also examine each of these institutions individually as well as issues related to racial/ethnic and class inequality, family life, marriage and divorce, survey research, and quantitative methodology. Along with my coauthor, Daniel Potter at American Institutes for Research, I investigated the unique contributions of family factors and school factors on the racial/ethnic achievement gap using a cumulative advantage framework which was published in Sociological Perspectives. By applying a cumulative advantage perspective and growth curve modeling, we demonstrate that family factors play a more prominent role than previously thought in explaining the achievement gap.
Also in the area of educational inequality, I look at how extracurricular activity participation differs along social class lines and how participation impacts the social class academic achievement gap. This research was published in Youth & Society and shows that participation in extracurriculars helps to reduce the achievement gap between affluent students and working-class/poor students. I built upon this research by examining the mechanisms that might explain why extracurricular participation helps mitigate the social class achievement gap in high school, which was published in the American Educational Research Journal, the flagship journal of the American Educational Research Association. This study found that development of social capital and noncognitive skills explain a large portion of the link between extracurricular participation and academic achievement.
My research also focuses on political behavior. Along with my coauthor, Jonathan Morris of East Carolina’s Department of Political Science, over the course of several studies using an innovative merged longitudinal dataset we looked at the ability of the Internet to mitigate the well-established socioeconomic gap in political participation. Our findings suggest that the Internet, via a multitude of pathways, reduces the socioeconomic gap in participation and political awareness which is essential for a more democratic and just society. Our work in this area has been published in Sociological Forum and Social Science Computer Review.