On Tuesday afternoon, Maree Mitchell’s classroom at Sussex School was temporarily transformed into a crime lab.

Mitchell, who has been at Sussex for 10 years teaching science and social studies to middle school students, has been working with her eighth-graders to learn about forensics and how investigators look at and examine crimes.

Tuesday’s exercise was the start of a final, hands-on experience with a staged crime scene assembled in the office of the school by Mitchell.

The students in her class were split into three teams, each focusing on a different area of investigation.

“If you find evidence, you are not to touch it. You are to photograph it and report it back to your team,” Mitchell reminded her students before the first group headed to the crime scene.

There were two main points to the exercise, Mitchell said. “The big question is, can people be falsely accused, and what can you do to reduce the chance of that happening?”

She also wanted students to learn that crime investigation isn’t like what they see on the popular “CSI” television shows. “There’s no magical enhance button; they don’t just lift perfect prints all of the time,” Mitchell said.

The first group at the scene drew maps of the area, and marked pieces of information found. Allegedly, a manila file was left in the wrong cabinet, and money went missing from it. The students put on rubber gloves and placed markers next to a piece of a broken mug and a small drop of blood on the floor beneath the cabinet, cataloging in notebooks the possible evidence.

While a partner took photos, Copeland Burchenal held a ruler in place to provide scale. Back at the classroom, students broke up into their investigation teams and Mitchell wrote the evidence uncovered on the board.

Another group had picked up the wastepaper garbage from that day, which was strewn across the room. One of the students found a note in the trash with “filing cabinet” and “deposit by Wednesday” written on it. Another chunk of the broken mug also was uncovered, this one with a bit of blood on it. Everything that could be meaningful was bagged and tagged with the location where it was found it.

The student-experts in blood went into the office next. They carefully scraped the dried blood sample off the floor with a razor blade and put it into an evidence container. They later used chemicals to test the type of blood.

Back at the classroom, four students used black powder to brush evidence for fingerprints. Labeled bags covered three long tables in the room.

At the end of the class, all the students gathered to help clean up. Any evidence in bags was placed in a box to be further examined Wednesday.

“Are you all through going through the trash?” Mitchell asked.

“Yeah, there’s nothing else in there but boogers and popcorn,” Tristan Redearth said.

***

Tuesday was all about gathering evidence. Over the next few days, students will process what they brought in, from classifying fingerprints and analyzing writing samples to typing the blood recovered from the scene and examining fibers to find a clothing match. When they finish, the three investigative teams will move on to interviewing possible witnesses or suspects.

“Their pool is fairly limited, it’s just the fifth-, sixth-, seventh-graders and the staff,” Mitchell said. “But I’m not making it too easy. I’ve given everyone who is questioned the full right to lie if they feel like it.”

Once the exercise reaches this stage, each team may end up coming to a different conclusion on what really happened, Mitchell said.

The hands-on segment is only one part of learning about forensics. Students also had readings on the subject, and watched documentaries about how criminal investigators really work. Because she teaches social studies as well as science, Mitchell integrates the two disciplines together, teaching students about the judicial system and how trials work.

“We also examined the O.J. Simpson trial. It had everything. Evidence, mismanagement and a prime example of what it takes to prosecute,” Mitchell said.

When she taught this unit in previous years, Mitchell took students to the state Crime Lab, or had one of its workers come to talk to students about the job. She said she wants to arrange something similar early next year.

The director of Sussex, Robyn Gaddy, said interactive learning such as the eighth-grade forensics unit is something that occurs at every grade level at the private school.

“We are always trying to take a theme and make it an experience for our students,” Gaddy said. The more involved students are with the subject matter, the more, she said, they retain about it.

While students don’t receive grades at Sussex, and the atmosphere in the classrooms is relaxed, the rigor of students’ work is very high, Gaddy said. And that work helps them build a portfolio, with finished products, rather than graded worksheets, that show what they have learned.

“It’s not about being comparative to where others are, it’s about where the students themselves are,” Gaddy said.

Dillon Kato is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5251 or at dillon.kato@missoulian.com.

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