June 01, 2011

Student puts 'broken windows theory' to the test

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale student Karla Keller Avelar began her research project by asking the classic question, "What if?"

A criminology and criminal justice major from Northlake, Keller Avelar found herself buying into a criminological theory she learned in her early coursework, but wondered if the theory applied to a college town such as Carbondale. She applied for a Saluki Scholars Research Opportunity (SSRO) grant through the University Honors Program to discover for herself, and began working with her mentor, Tammy Rinehart Kochel assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“I’m applying the ‘broken windows theory’ to Carbondale,” she said. “I want to see if the theory, which emphasizes community responsibility, applies to a community with such a transient population.”

The broken windows theory, Keller Avelar explained, posits that reducing signs of disorder in a community can also reduce crime.

“If a broken window goes unfixed in a neighborhood, then the chances increase that soon there will be more than one broken window,” she said, describing the theory and how it got its name. “In some communities, mostly urban areas, police departments have tried to get involved in fixing and cleaning up signs of disorder such as broken windows in communities in an effort to reduce crime.”

Keller Avelar decided to put the theory to the test in Carbondale, specifically in neighborhoods with high turnover due to student populations. She also chose to use a group of volunteers rather than seeking to involve police officers.

“Sometimes when a number of police officers are highly visible in an area, it gives people the impression that the area is high crime,” she said. “I didn’t want that to factor into my research.”

Kellar Avelar’s first step was to locate appropriate neighborhoods for her research. She wanted to focus on areas where signs of disorder were present, where students lived, and where she could get enough feedback from residents to complete 75 surveys at two different times during her research period. She used crime-mapping statistics to help her identify the areas, but mostly she located them simply by looking -- where are there signs of disorder such as broken windows and street trash, and are students a significant portion of the population?

She identified three areas in which to focus her efforts, selecting individual blocks on Hester Street, East College Street and Chestnut Street. She noted that Chestnut Street represents a mixed population, with families and single people as well as students. She identified three similar blocks to use for comparison as her control group.

Her next step was to survey a sampling of 75 residents in the areas where she planned to test the theory. She used a classic criminological survey as the basis for her survey, including questions such as “How often do you see garbage in the neighborhood?” and “Are there particular times of day when you do not feel safe?”

After that initial survey, Kellar Avelar and a group of 11 volunteers, most of them criminology and criminal justice majors, began the treatment phase of the research. They cleaned each area twice a week from late November through early March with a break for the holidays. All volunteers wore maroon hoodies, donated by the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, in order to present a uniform and easily identifiable appearance.

Finally, Kellar Avelar finished up with an end-of-treatment survey, again seeking out 75 respondents. She tried to interview the same people, but having exact duplications was not critical to her research. Still, she did manage to interview roughly half the people in the surveys twice. She finished her surveys during spring break.

Her findings indicate that neighborhood residents did seem to notice the volunteers helping to clean their community. She said many residents also expressed a sense of community. However, many of them said the trash was not generated from within the neighborhood, but instead was the result of bar foot traffic or was left by residents of other, nearby neighborhoods.

Kellar said it seems clear to her that students need to become more invested not just with their own communities but with their neighboring communities.

“They need to think of this as not just their home for four years, but as home to students before them and after them as well,” she said. “The residents I talked to said they’d like to see more public trash cans and recycling bins, and improved trash removal.”

Kellar Avelar said her involvement with research has been a pivotal point in her college career. A Presidential Scholar, Writing Center tutor and small group leader in the Intervarsity Fellowship, Kellar Avelar is accustomed to working hard to achieve ambitious goals. Involvement in research, she said, is now the directing force for her remaining semesters at SIUC.

Kochel concurred, saying undergraduate research is a forum for ambitious students to work closely with a faculty mentor and to learn by doing.

“Undergraduate research gives students a chance to ‘get in the weeds’ with the concepts they have learned in the classroom,” she said.

She noted that in Keller Avelar’s case, research was an appropriate challenge for an intelligent, hard-working student. She noted the pragmatic nature of Keller Avelar’s research may have practical applications for Carbondale. She noted, too, that for her student, the learning experience has been dramatic, with research methodology including data acquisition, systematic social observation, survey design, issues such as safety, credibility and confidentiality, preparing a public presentation, and even some specific research software tools.

She said she has several options to prepare for after graduation, among them graduate school or law school. However, this research project has shown her some new avenues for giving back to her global community. She hopes ultimately to become involved with the International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that intervenes to help prosecute perpetrators of violent or sexual crime in countries where prosecution of such crimes is not a priority.

The Saluki Scholars Research Opportunity is one of several undergraduate research programs available at SIUC. Other programs include Research Rookies, the McNair Scholars Program and the REACH (Research-Enriched Academic Challenge) program.