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Schools in Broward, Palm Beach counties plan to add forensic courses in 05

By Lois K. Solomon
Posted April 2 2004

Inspired by the amazing popularity of crime-scene shows among teenagers, schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties will introduce forensic science into biology classes next year, complete with lessons in DNA analysis, fingerprinting, fiber residues and toxicology.

Many teenagers already are familiar with these criminology terms, thanks to TV programs such as CSI, which was ranked among the top 10 most-watched prime-time shows in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast for viewers age 12 to 17 during recent surveys. Other popular crime shows among teens are the Law & Order franchise and Cops.

"We want to ride that wave,'' said Fred Barch, the Palm Beach County School District's high school science coordinator. "We think it will fire up teachers and motivate students as well.''

All 10th-grade biology classes in Palm Beach County and students at six Broward County high schools will learn forensic science next year.

If the classes in Broward County are successful, they likely will become more widespread, science coordinator J.P. Keener said.

Students will learn how to study a crime scene, analyze possible suspects and use scientific methods to prove theories. Science teachers hope these lessons will get students excited about biology, physics and chemistry, dreaded by many but increasingly important. Scores on standardized science exams will count toward schools' grades from the state beginning in 2007. Although TV-watching students may plunge into the new curriculum with zeal, some real-life investigators warn that the job lacks glamour and often is grueling and tedious.

"Crimes are not solved in 35 minutes,'' said Ben Perillo, commander of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office technical-services bureau, which oversees the crime laboratories. "The reality is it can take months or even years."

Perillo said his employees get a lot of attention because of the TV shows. Viewers want to take tours of the lab or visit crime scenes with detectives, which the public is not allowed to do.

Still, he said, the new awareness makes jurors more educated when they listen to a case in court. And it could bring more young people into the profession, which, he said, lacks a new generation of DNA analysts and toxicologists.

"We used to be the guys in the back room,'' Perillo said. "Now we're in the limelight.''

Schools across the country have been seeking out investigators such as Perillo to come to their classes and talk about their work. More than 14,000 teachers have downloaded Court TV's Forensics in the Classroom' lessons, designed by the network in cooperation with the National Science Teachers Association and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The Colorado Springs-based academy hosts three conferences each year to demonstrate teaching methods, and plans a Florida convention in 2005.

"We want teachers to teach it accurately and ethically,'' director of development Jim Hurley said. "Kids forget how serious and sober this work is.''

Court TV's lessons reinforce biology and chemistry concepts while attempting to avoid a blood-and-guts overload, said Linda Finney, Court TV vice president of special events. In a lesson called "The Celebration,'' shots fired into the air after a football game rip through the awning of an Italian restaurant, and the owner wants to find the culprit. Students examine the residue left by the bullet and match it to the gun registered to the guilty party.

Other lessons require use of substances some might consider gruesome. Students must analyze "stomach contents,'' or vomit consisting of raw calf's liver, in a mystery that seeks to find out who trashed the school cafeteria. In other lessons, students analyze blood to determine a victim's identity, using chopped meat or raw steak bought by the teacher, she said.

Boca Raton High School science teacher Erin Blackmore used artificial blood but real bones during a forensics lesson she designed for her biology students. She was amazed at how her least-enthusiastic students immersed themselves in the details, measuring skulls and femurs to determine a victim's sex, race and height.

"They never backed down from the work because they had the interest,'' she said. "I was able to hook them.''

Blackmore, who hopes to help write the forensics curriculum for the school district this summer, decorated her class to look like the scene of a crime and invited a crime-lab supervisor to speak to students, who said they were impressed with the gravity of the job and its ultimate rewards.

"I always watched CSI, but now I watch it differently,'' said student John Tischart, 15. "The reality is there's a lot of paperwork and a lot of waiting around. It kind of takes away from the entertainment.''

Lois Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6536.

Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel