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Education Reporter

The Reincarnation of Death Ed
Forensics Ed is new fad in many schools

Forensics ed exposes children
to frightening images
Those who think death education courses faded away after Columbine and other school violence tragedies should acquaint themselves with Forensic Science education. Cloaked in the respectable mantle of "science," forensics courses are the reincarnation of death education.

An internet search using the phrase "forensic science education in elementary and high schools" turns up more than 10,000 websites, many sponsored by individual schools. One site features a cartoon graphic of a child in rain gear under animated drops of blood. Another offers online curriculum resources for high school forensic science.

The monthly online bulletin, "Forensic Science Educators in Baltimore County, Maryland" (January 2002), includes a text box titled "Hook-em" followed by this paragraph: "In order to prepare my students for a unit on Entomology/Time of Death, I have them read an article about Bill Bass and the 'Body Farm.' This research facility is located in Tennessee and is dedicated to entomological research. Bodies are placed in various environments and observed to determine the succession of insects infesting the body and the environmental conditions that possibly could influence this succession." On page two, the author describes how children can conduct experiments on pigs' feet as they are ravaged over time by insects and weather.

These exercises are mild compared to the forensics courses described recently in the Wall Street Journal (2-28-02). An article titled "Gore Curriculum" reports that 22 9th graders in Minneapolis, Minnesota were taken to "a deserted stretch of Mississippi River shoreline" last summer to observe a mock crime scene complete with "a dismembered mannequin in a car trunk, a severed arm in a grocery bag and a bloody hacksaw." On another field trip, this class visited the city morgue, where students "saw a decomposed cadaver crawling with maggots and a mutilated corpse being boiled so the bones could be examined for signs of foul play." These students were enrolled in a federally-funded forensics course as part of an academic-enrichment program offered by the University of Minnesota for disadvantaged youth.

The Journal also reports that an assistant principal at Stockbridge High School in Georgia,"was 'murdered' last year after eating 'poisoned' oatmeal as part of the biology program's forensics unit." The educator "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."

In a forensics class at Waverly-Shell Rock High School in Iowa, students read Helter Skelter, the 1974 book about cult murderer Charles Manson, who is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in California. The science teacher corresponds with Manson and shares the letters with his students "to make classic cases real to them."

While schools' zero tolerance policies relentlessly punish youth for writing or talking about violent acts, many forensics courses involve students solving mock murders of teachers using biology and physics procedures including blood typing and bullet trajectories. At Mehlville High School in St. Louis last year, forensics students worked to solve the mock murder of three teachers at an after-school faculty meeting.

As with earlier death education courses, forensic science is often included in other classes, such as literature and language arts. In West Chester, PA, students at Stetson Middle School learn language skills as they relate to crime, creating psychological profiles of fictional characters and writing their own murder mysteries. This spring, the students will make movies of crimes they reenact.

Proponents of forensic science courses claim they pique students' interest and "boost problem-solving skills in chemistry, statistics and other disciplines." But skeptics counter that the courses promote violence, cause psychological harm and oversimplify the complex, sophisticated processes used in real forensic science investigations. "Some educators worry that if the topic is simplified for high-school consumption," notes the Wall Street Journal, "it can turn into something frivolous."

Also of concern are the books that accompany many forensics courses. Textbook titles include Dead Giveaways: How Real Life Crimes Are Solved by Amazing Scientific Evidence, Personality Profiling and Paranormal Investigations by Andrew Donkin, Fingerprints and Talking Bones by Charlotte Foltz Jones, and Crime Scene Investigations by Pam Walker, with one volume for elementary school students and another for high school students. Recommended reading selections include Homicide by David Simon, Mindhunter by John Douglas, Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William R. Maples, Bones by Dr. Douglas Ubelaker, Unnatural Death by Michael Baden, Fatal Justice by Jerry Potter, and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.

The book, Crime Lab: A Guide for Non-Scientists, written by retired Washington state detective John Houde and published in 1999, has been recommended for children 12 years and up. The book opens with a description of the sexual assault of a woman tied up with electrical cord, and includes topic titles such as "Rape Kit," "The Blunt Instrument," and "Flying Blood." Houde told the Wall Street Journal he was "astonished" to find that one-third of the copies sold so far have been to secondary schools. "We've seen it bought [for students] as young as junior high school," Houde said. "But that's not what we recommend."

In order to teach forensic science courses, teachers must be trained, and the number of training seminars is growing. According to the Journal, 200 high school teachers from all over the nation will be trained in Colorado Springs in July by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a 5,000-member group.

Some colleges and universities also offer training courses. Clayton College and State University in Morrow, GA, instructed teachers how to plan mock murders in a course underwritten by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This course suggested "convincing sites" for the crimes, such as "a school storage closet," and teachers were urged to create the murder scene. "Why were the subject and victim in the room? What weapon was used? Act out the struggle." The teachers were allowed to handle a pistol that had supposedly belonged to a CIA assassin and were shown slides of, among other things, "a man who had blown his head off with a gun."

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