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Susybel Pimentel

College: John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2015

Peeling Off Labels

Police officers stop kids countless times every day, perhaps because of their hoodies, or because several are hanging out or because of what the officers perceive to be their attitude. Even if the youngsters haven't done anything criminal, these interactions can have negative effects, researchers find.

"If someone keeps telling you you're stupid or good for nothing, you start acting that way because you come to believe that's how you are," explains Susybel Roxana Pimentel (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, B.A./M.A. in forensic psychology, 2012). She received a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support doctoral study at the University of Cincinnati into how the negative labels officers may apply to youngsters can have such powerful effects.

Pimentel cites the pioneering work of Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton, who coined the phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy" in 1948 to explain how a false assertion can be so powerful that it influences behavior until it becomes true. Two 2013 studies compared what happened to juveniles whom police had stopped and had not stopped; several years later, those who were stopped (some possibly for good reason) were more likely to report engaging in delinquent or criminal behavior.

"We need to understand why that's true," Pimentel says. Since those studies relied on secondary data, she intends to do primary research in Cincinnati neighborhoods, looking at what's actually "happening in these interactions, and is it possible that when police officers have positive experiences with youth there won't be negative impacts?"

She is designing her research with her advisor, associate professor Christopher Sullivan, who directs graduate studies at the University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice.

Pimentel was born in Peru and immigrated with her family to Connecticut when she was in middle school. She enrolled at John Jay intending to become a psychologist involved with domestic violence counseling, but in 2010 teenagers out for kicks on Halloween fatally stabbed her best friend as he walked home in New London.

"I was shocked, angry, sad," she says. "I had two options: I could be angry and blame the kids, or I could try to do something better, try to understand what would lead individuals to do that."

As a Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Scholar at John Jay, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Pimentel plunged into research, which culminated in her master's thesis. It examined the underlying mechanism that links trauma exposure to academic performance among college students. She did this work under her mentor, associate professor Maureen Allwood, whose research focuses on the developmental effects of trauma and exposure to violence and their impact on school failure, delinquency, substance abuse and suicide.

After graduating in 2012, she worked for a summer with the Vera Institute of Justice, surveying young New Yorkers about the NYPD's stop and frisk practices. For the next two years, she worked as a cognitive skills facilitator with teenagers jailed at Rikers Island. She helped them work through a behavioral intervention program developed by the nonprofit Osborne Association that aims to reduce recidivism and promote conflict-resolution and other life skills.

"It was a good fit," she says. "The kids had to talk about their lives, building trust, setting goals, trying to understand their own behavior. And when they went home, I had to make sure they were actively looking for jobs or going back to school."

Ultimately, Pimentel would like to work as a policy researcher for a government or public policy agency and do some work outside the United States, perhaps in her native Peru.

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious award for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $138,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.