The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Gore Curriculum: Your Child Studying Murders? Forensics Is The Hot New Subject --- Teachers Say It Can Entice Bored Kids, but Skeptics See a Focus on Violence

By Barbara Carton
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Last summer, Minneapolis teacher Bobbie Rush led 22 ninth graders to a deserted stretch of Mississippi River shoreline. There, they came upon a mock crime scene: a dismembered mannequin in a car trunk, a severed arm in a grocery bag and a bloody hacksaw.

That wasn't the only macabre tableau the teenagers encountered. During a separate field trip to the city morgue, they saw a decomposed cadaver crawling with maggots and a mutilated corpse being boiled so the bones could be examined for signs of foul play.

"Another guy got buried alive while working in a ditch," recalls 15-year-old Heather Callahan, who thought the trip was fun. "He was already cut open and everything."

Aiming to keep kids interested in an era of fast-paced, reality-based entertainment, more schools have begun offering courses on forensics, the science of applying medical facts to legal problems. Teachers are also using the subject to perk up subjects like biology and even English.

The Minneapolis students were enrolled in a forensics course as part of a federally funded academic-enrichment program that the University of Minnesota offers for disadvantaged students. In Davenport, Iowa, the school district is considering making forensics an elective for all ninth and tenth graders in 2003. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a 5,000-member group based in Colorado Springs, Colo., is planning a "Forensic Science Education Initiative" for 200 high-school teachers from around the country in July. The academy says the workshop will feature a "massive crime scene" and seminars with names like "Blood Splatter."

There aren't statistics on how many schools offer forensics courses. But the National Science Teachers Association says forensics is growing in popularity and is a good way to motivate students weaned on crime shows like CBS's popular "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Meanwhile, a cottage industry of books and hands-on kits for students is also taking shape.

While the forensic science used in courtrooms is based upon sophisticated chemistry and physics, some educators worry that if the topic is simplified for high-school consumption, it can turn into something frivolous. Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., was one of the earlier schools to use forensics as a teaching tool, beginning in the late 1980s. But a nine-week unit taught to some freshmen was dropped by the mid-1990s because the school's science department concluded it was "light on scientific knowledge," according to a spokeswoman for Susan Bridge, the principal at Glenbard West at the time.

Another concern is that at a time when teachers and families are trying to cope with the aftermath of highly publicized school shootings, immersing students in death and destruction could cause distraction and even emotional harm.

"I call this 'Science of the Lambs' -- this is not a PG subject," says James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, alluding to the gory thriller about a serial killer and a cannibal. "Murder exists, but it's a lot less common than you would think, based on television." He says children can be desensitized to violence or traumatized as a result of dealing with crime-scene material.

Russ Skiba, a school-violence researcher at Indiana University, says, "Students are routinely being suspended and expelled from school for writing very graphic descriptions of how they might murder an assistant principal, and then we're turning around and presenting 'Helter Skelter.' "

"Helter Skelter," the 1974 book about cult-leader and murderer Charles Manson, is on the recommended-reading list for forensics students in teacher James R. Hurley's class at Waverly-Shell Rock High School in Waverly, Iowa. Several years ago, Mr. Hurley initiated a correspondence with Mr. Manson, who is serving a life sentence in California. The science teacher shares the letters with his class of 65 seniors as part of an effort "to make classic cases real to them," Mr. Hurley says. A sample dispatch from the killer: "Hurley, I've never done anything I had to study. All I've learnt has been by mistake."

The teacher says he has received about 20 letters from Mr. Manson, some including drawings of a human skull with fangs and a hole in the forehead. Mr. Manson's 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others remain important because they "startled the nation in [their] brutality" and because of the psychological power Mr. Manson exerted over his followers, the teacher adds.

David Hanawalt, 18, raves about the class, which he just finished. Students videotaped true-crime TV shows and critiqued them in class. Mr. Hanawalt says he wasn't scared by anything discussed, although he found his teacher's correspondence with Mr. Manson "a little creepy."

David's mother, Barbara Hanawalt, agrees that the correspondence "was a little disconcerting." But she also praises the class, saying, "Anytime you can broaden your horizons and learn something, it's a good idea."

The high point of many forensics courses is a mock murder, which students are taught to unravel using the biology of blood-typing or the physics of bullet trajectories. Such faux crimes often involve the "slaying" of faculty.

In Stockbridge, Ga., Tom Boutwell, an assistant principal at Stockbridge High School, was "murdered" last year after eating "poisoned" oatmeal as part of the biology program's forensics unit. For the lesson, Mr. Boutwell agreed to lie on the floor, his head dripping with fake blood. As students looked on, his body was covered with a blanket and carted away on a stretcher.

Mr. Boutwell says such simulations are valuable learning tools. "It's bad that tragedy is part of the real world," he says. "But through tragedies like this, students are able to learn subjects like forensic science."

At Mehlville High School in St. Louis, where forensics students wear "Crime Scene Unit" t-shirts, last year's mock murder involved the killing of three teachers at an after-school faculty meeting. This year, teacher Michael Szydlowski is planning a simulated kidnapping of two students by a staff member. Students will narrow down the possible suspects by analyzing the crime scene and examining such evidence as hair and fiber samples, he says.

Proponents say such classes boost problem-solving skills in chemistry, statistics and other disciplines and can awaken scientific interest in students. Timothy Schwartz, 16, who attends high school in Essex Junction, Vt., says he failed introductory earth science last year because he found it boring and slept through every class. But an enthusiastic Mr. Schwartz now wears a white lab coat emblazoned with "Forensics" across the back and takes field trips to such places as the state-police crime lab.

He has helped with a class project on the John F. Kennedy assassination, which included using lasers to trace the trajectory of the fatal bullets and reconstructing a life-sized model of killer Lee Harvey Oswald, complete with a realistic-looking rifle made of wood and pipe. Mr. Schwartz says he "used to love science as a kid" and now does again, thanks to such hands-on projects.

Many forensics courses are interdisciplinary. In Erik Hein's seventh-grade English class at Stetson Middle School in West Chester, Pa., the science is taught by a colleague while Mr. Hein focuses on language skills as they relate to crime.

Currently, his students are reading "The Outsiders," a 1967 novel about gangs in Oklahoma. As they do so, they develop psychological profiles of characters in the book and, based on those, try to predict what will happen next. Each student will also write a murder mystery of six-to-10 pages. In the spring, they will hone organizational skills and test their dramatic talent by making movies of crimes they reenact. "That's more fun at the end of the year than nouns and pronouns," Mr. Hein says.

In addition to having students write their own materials, teachers can call upon a growing selection of forensic science kits on the market. Released last year, the $79.95 "Kidnapped!" kit from Carolina Biological Supply Co. in Burlington, N.C., is described by the company as "exciting," "realistic" and suitable for children 11 and older. It comes with fake blood.

A spate of texts have also popped up. Some are self-published and passed around at teacher workshops. They include "Crime Puppies," which an Iowa kindergarten teacher wrote for elementary-school students. Other books were originally aimed at the adult-reference market but are now being adopted by secondary schools.

John Houde, a retired detective from Bainbridge Island, Wash., wrote "Crime Lab: A Guide For Non-Scientists" as a reference tool for adults. The 1999 book, published by Calico Press LLC, opens with a description of a sexual assault of a woman tied up with electric cord. Topic headings include "Rape Kit," "The Blunt Instrument" and "Flying Blood." Illustrations include one of a gag made out of a pair of boxer shorts used in the undated kidnap-murder of an eight- year-old boy.

Mr. Houde says he was astonished to learn that one-third of the 6,000 copies sold so far have been purchased by secondary schools. Carolina Biological Supply recommends it for children 12 and up. "We've seen it bought by as young as junior high school," Mr. Houde says. "But that's not what we recommend."

Pearson PLC's Prentice Hall unit is pursuing a school market for its new "Crime Scene Investigation" series. Since 1999, the publisher has sold 10,000 copies of the elementary-school version, which focuses on crimes such as a student who nearly dies after drinking tainted soda. The version for grade six and up has sold more than 35,000 copies. Students learn that in one to three days, carrion flies begin settling on corpses, which are referred to as "insect food courts." Lab questions include: "When flies find the body of a dead human, they usually lay eggs in the mouth, eyes and ears first. Why do you think this is so?"

For teachers who don't know how to begin, training courses have sprung up that instruct in planning realistic mock murders, even suggesting convincing sites, such as a school storage closet. "Decide on the time of day," a teacher- training course offered last summer by Clayton College and State University in Morrow, Ga., urged. "Why were the subject and victim in the room? What weapon was used? Act out the struggle."

The session attracted 12 high-school teachers and was underwritten by a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The teachers were allowed to handle a pistol they were told had once belonged to a Central Intelligence Agency assassin, and they saw slides of such things as a man who had blown his head off with a gun.

The eagerness of some school teachers has given some forensics professionals pause. Brent E. Turvey, a forensic scientist from Watsonville, Calif., says he recently got a call from Mr. Hein, the seventh-grade West Chester, Pa., teacher, who wanted him to lecture to his students.

"But I work on rapes and homicides and rape-homicides," says Mr. Turvey. "Those topics are, frankly, entirely inappropriate for seventh graders." He declined Mr. Hein's invitation.

Mr. Hein -- who is so taken with forensics that he hopes to land a summer job at the local morgue -- says he now understands why Mr. Turvey "isn't appropriate for our guys." Instead, the teacher says he is trying to line up a local police officer to speak to his students about blood splatter.

Cite: Carton, B. "Science Teachers Rouse Interest With Gory Forensics Lessons,'" The Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2002