If you saw the car in the woods off Webster Avenue in New Rochelle today, surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, with the driver slumped over the steering wheel, don’t worry. The driver was a dummy, not a real person.
That was just one of several mock crime scenes set up at Nature Study Woods for New Rochelle High School’s forensic science class. The trip is an annual rite for the junior crime scene investigators, who have learned how to find, tag and handle evidence, and how to figure out what happened.
Teacher Scott Rubins often gets asked if, by teaching students how to solve crimes, he’s also teaching them how to get away with misdeeds. He says it doesn’t work that way.
“Once they see how much evidence is actually left behind that they don’t even realize is left behind, they’re scared to do anything,” he said. “They say ‘There’s no way I can get away with a crime.’”
Among the other “victims” was the body found on a slope by the path, the victim of an attempted abduction turned fatal and the guy with the bullet hole from a gun his hunting buddy said went off accidentally.
Even students who are not looking to become crime scene investigators like the class.
“Forensic science – that’s just cool,” said Michael Rodriguez, 17, a senior.
He and the group of fellow investigators looking at one crime found a cell phone, a hair brush, even a note with a phone number. And an amputated leg. (Fake, of course.)
“I was surprised to find the leg,” said Camila Chavarro, 18, also a senior. She is interested in the field and plans to study it in college.
The day, which is done for the students’ final test, is a major undertaking, and New Rochelle police officers help out.
The bodies may be fake, but the students’ determination to figure them out is real. They place yellow evidence markers, take photos and bag evidence. Biological clues, like hair, go in paper bags, not plastic as you might see on television.
“Biological material has to go in paper so it can breathe,” Rubins said. “Otherwise, the cells can degrade and you can’t use if for DNA and things of that nature.”
Rubins said the lessons learned in the class can be applied to more than just crime solving.
“I’m teaching them how to think and process,” he said. “And they’re having a great time doing it.”
There’s a waiting list to get into the class, made highly popular in part by the CSI shows on television.
Some do follow the path. Kristen Johnson, who graduated in 2006, studied biology and forensic science at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Penn. because of the fascination she developed in Rubins’ class. Living back in New Rochelle, she was on hand today to help supervise as well. She’s got a couple of job interviews lined up in the field.
She says she likes forensic science because of the way it combines biology, chemistry and logical thinking.
“I liked that it was a large puzzle that you could put back together,” she said.
Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak stopped by the scenes, treading carefully on the mud in dress shoes, to talk about what he called a creative and valuable class.
“When you want to talk about hands-on learning and applied learning, how much better can it get than this?”