Criminal Justice Professor at the Forefront of Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion
Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., is a dedicated professor, mentor, and researcher. Her passion for promoting equity is making a lasting impact in the field of youth justice and in her efforts to enhance and enrich the University’s culture.
March 2, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., was growing up in St. Louis, she looked forward to going to college. She thought she might become a pediatrician, or, as she had excelled in chemistry in high school, a chemist. As a college student, however, she discovered a passion for criminal justice.
Dr. Cooper persevered through college at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, though, she admits, she struggled. Taking a leave of absence, she completed a semester at a junior college and reassessed her future plans. She realized chemistry wasn’t for her, and she discovered something new that was: a major that Truman State offered called justice systems.
“I couldn’t fathom at that point in my life that there would be something else that would enable me to ask questions and still be involved,” she said. “Discovering justice systems really shifted the narrative for me into social sciences, into the fact that I could be just as critical, just as inquisitive. I realized I could do meaningful research and thwart injustice – even though I wouldn’t be doing it in the lab as I’d expected.”
A perfect fit
As a college student, Dr. Cooper, who overcame a learning disability, learned how to advocate for herself, as well as for others. Excelling as a justice systems student, she became a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, part of a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through scholarly activities such as research. After she was accepted to law school, master’s programs, and doctoral programs, she decided on the University of Florida, earning her Master of Arts and, later, her doctorate in criminology, law, and society.
It was through an Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference in Florida, that Dr. Cooper met William Carbone ’74 MPA, a senior lecturer at the University of New Haven and director of the Tow Youth Justice Institute, a University, state, and private partnership that advances juvenile justice reform through planning and policy development, training, research, and advocacy. Prof. Carbone reached out to her about an opportunity at the University of New Haven that, she says, was a perfect fit.
“I thought I’d graduate with a Ph.D. and I’d have to choose a piece of myself, that I’d have to be either a professor, a researcher, or a practitioner,” she said. “I feel very lucky about this position, since I get to teach the classes I’m interested in as well as mentor students. I get to work with students much like how I was brought into this field and help them learn as I have learned.”
‘It is a great place to work’
An associate professor of criminal justice, Dr. Cooper also serves as director of research at the Tow Youth Justice Institute. Her research interests include policing, sexual offending, and substance use, and she continues to expand her work.
Now in her second year of a three-year Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention-funded project, Dr. Cooper is exploring front-end diversion – keeping youths out of the justice system – through the lens of racial and ethnic disparity. Specifically, she has interviewed those responsible for diversion in communities, and she is now working on a report that explains what helps youths stay out of the juvenile justice system, identifying where disparity can be lessened.
Dr. Cooper and her colleagues at the Tow Youth Justice Institute have also curated the largest compilation of data on youths who are involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems in Connecticut, and she maintains the data with the assistance of the University’s Center for Analytics. She is working to build a broader, more robust dataset incorporating factors such as health, housing, and education that will enable them to expand how they explore and better understand the involvement of youths and young adults in the criminal justice system.
Dedicated to ensuring that her students have opportunities to take part in meaningful research, Dr. Cooper manages a research team at the Tow Youth Justice Institute of up to a dozen students. She is excited about the opportunities they have to conduct hands-on research.
“It is a great place to work, both for me as a faculty member and for students,” she said. “Students get to see a bit more of the underbelly of what justice reform looks like. I’m confident that we’re preparing them well and teaching them about the work that happens in these spaces.”
‘Students are very passionate’
Dr. Cooper’s research goes beyond her work at the Tow Youth Justice Institute. She recently published a paper focused on community attitudes toward sex offenders, and she has another under review about a study examining the economic impact of being a registered sex offender.
A Certified Prevention Professional in Florida and Connecticut, Dr. Cooper also works with nonprofit and community organizations as a prevention trainer and evaluation consultant to support wellness and address social conditions, such as substance use, that affect the welfare of youths and their families.
Passionate about her role as an educator and mentor, Dr. Cooper is also dedicated to the well-being of her students. She fosters open communication with them, something she says is particularly important as they learn virtually amid the coronavirus global pandemic.
“I like working with students because it’s a chance for us both to grow,” she said. “I also try to be transparent with them. We’re going through a pandemic, and I remind them that they aren’t going through it alone. I seek to support them.”
Committed to making an impact in the criminal justice field, Dr. Cooper encourages her students to use their voices to be a force for positive change. She is inspired by their willingness to get involved, citing several students’ recent testimony to the State of Connecticut’s Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, which will use their testimony when making recommendations to state legislators. She continues to ensure that students have the support they need so that they can continue to be as involved and impactful as possible.
“Based on what I see and the reform that is being called for, I know that we need them,” she said. “They can impact their workplaces. We need police officers who have this type of education. Students are very passionate, and they learn from each other. They also keep me sharp.”
‘It is an opportunity to be kind’
Dr. Cooper, who was recently named an inaugural Center for Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow, is now taking part in a University-wide endeavor to foster an environment of support and inclusion. She conducted her first campus-wide survey when she was an undergraduate student. As a member of the University’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Council and the IDEA Council’s assessment team co-chair, she is the driving force behind the University’s 2021 Campus Climate Survey.
Conducted every two years, the survey is a way for the University to critically examine its diversity and inclusion endeavors and initiatives. Dr. Cooper says the pandemic has impacted the University’s climate and the student experience in many ways, making new data especially critical.
This year’s survey is also particularly important in light of the University’s ongoing strategic planning efforts that President Kaplan said would focus on ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the heart of all University initiatives. Dr. Cooper hopes the entire University community will take part in the survey, and she is hearted by the response so far.
Open to all students, faculty, and staff through March 12, the survey enables Chargers to make their voices heard anonymously. Participants have the opportunity to receive incentives such as Amazon gift cards, parking passes, and early selection slots for on-campus housing.
“The work of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access is all of our work because it benefits everyone,” she said. “It permeates everything we do. It is an opportunity to be kind, to make connections, and to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”