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3MT winner Elisse Newey explains her dissertation

Present your doctoral thesis in three minutes or less . . . ready, set, go! 

Imagine condensing scores of research and analysis and presenting it to an audience who is assumed to know nothing about the research being presented. This is the challenge that faced BYU graduate students who participated in the annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) event. 

This year, the university-wide 3MT event was one to remember, especially for McKay School students who watched their cohort, Elisse Newey, take first place.

Newey’s dissertation was titled, From the Schoolhouse to the Jailhouse: Restoring Justice for Utah’s Teens. She began her presentation with a chilling representation of what some Utah teens struggle with. She had the audience imagine this scenario:

You are 15 years old and your dad is not in the picture and your mom is working two jobs just to keep the family afloat. As the oldest sibling your job is to get your younger siblings to school every day. Now it is likely that you will probably be late to your own school . . . you might start to fall behind in your classes and lose interest, and your teachers might get really frustrated.

Newey said these kinds of things are to be expected for teens in this situation, but what people don’t normally expect is these disadvantaged teens can end up in juvenile detention on charges of truancy. 

In 2017, the Utah State Legislature passed the juvenile justice reform bill which prevented schools from using the criminal justice system to enforce their attendance policies. However, this bill was put on hold and much of it was repealed because of “an overwhelming outcry” from school administrators, counselors, and teachers. Newey’s dissertation delves into why this happened and what can be done to restore justice for Utah teens. 

Elisse NeweyNewey became passionate about school inequities when she moved from teaching students in the Bronx to a wealthy school district in Texas. She said, “The stark differences and inequities were really clear going from those two different experiences, so it made me really passionate about education equity in schools and justice.” After a few years of teaching, Newey decided to go back to school to study the law to learn how to make things more equitable for the kids. She also wanted to go back to school because she “wanted to figure out how to tell stories that reflect the complexities of real life.”

When she started her PhD, she wanted to look at the inequities in the school system but didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, she had the opportunity to go to a class held in the juvenile detention center in Spanish Fork. When speaking about her experience there, Newey said, “It was so striking to go there. The stories [the teens] would tell were just heartbreaking.” During this time, the legislation was being worked on and her professor who held class in the detention center was asked to consult on what was being written. Newey was given an opportunity to watch and help him in the process. She quickly became invested in the situation and dove into more research for her dissertation. 

While working on this project, she encountered a few difficulties, including situations where emotions ran high with stakeholders she would meet with and interview. Newey said she would often have to face anger and frustration that seemed insurmountable. However, she also realized “If there is passion involved, then I know it is something worth fighting for and looking at.” 

Although the project was permeated with challenges, Newey said, “at the end of the day it comes back to stories . . . and part of telling stories is listening. I realized my purpose was not to judge emotions or reactions, but to hear and understand them so I could tell a story that represents the truth.” Newey believes telling people’s stories is one way of getting a more just solution. 

Newey hopes when her dissertation is complete that it can be used to inform the way policy makers work to involve schools in the process. She explained that there are many complicating factors contributing to the narrative. “I would hope we can take this kind of research and use it at the policy making process to explain to other stakeholders that are not at the table, and whose voices need to be heard before a successful piece of legislation is crafted.”

Newey graduated from law school in December and will walk in April. She will graduate with her PhD from the Educational Inquiry, Measurement, and Evaluation PhD (EIME) program at the McKay School of Education next year. Once she graduates, Newey hopes to become an education law professor so she can continue to research important policies to restore justice to teens.

To watch the full presentation of her dissertation, go to

Written by: Ashley Hamblin
Contact: Shauna Valentine (801) 422-8562