It was a familiar sight at Sykesville Middle School for this time of year.
A seasoned police detective stood by overlooking as investigators formed a chain and stepped slowly through the scene, eyes scanning for the smallest scrap of evidence near the thrown-open doors of an abandoned vehicle.
The scene was familiar because a similar one has played out most years during the final exam of the four-week Junior CSI academy that was wrapping up its 10th year. The program is a collaboration among the Sykesville Police Department, the Freedom District Lions Club, which provide vital funding for the operating costs as well as extra goodies, and the middle school, which provides its facilities.
On Tuesday, Oct. 9, retired Baltimore City Police Homicide Detective Earl Kratsch was putting the investigators— all middle school students — through their paces to search an SUV abandoned after a reported armed robbery.
Inside the school hallways, Cpl. Carl Bird supervised the investigators going through a “he said, she said” case involving “explosives” found in a student’s locker.
Students crowded inside the yellow crime scene tape wielding clip boards and notepads. Above the general chatter they reminded each other to wear gloves as they searched through nearby lockers for evidence.
Kaedin Williamson, a sixth-grader, said in the last few weeks he most enjoyed the grid search activity, where small pieces of evidence were spread throughout the gym and the junior CSI investigators learned how they were documented.
“I was the security,” he said. “My job was to record everyone.”
During the final exam, the kids took on roles from crime scene security to lead investigator, note taker and evidence collector.
Seventh-grader Caleb DiGregario was surprised to learn that investigators could gather information about a glove-wearing suspect by using imprints from the gloves.
Later, once the exam was done, there was the promise of a 10th-anniversary surprise which turned out to be a cake and a water bottle from the Lions Club.
Sykesville Police Chief Michael Spaulding said the program wouldn’t be possible without Kratsch and the other instructors who bring their real-world expertise to the program. This year brought instructors including Carroll County Sheriff’s Office crime scene technicians and deputies, a Maryland State Police Trooper trained in cyber forensics, members of the Baltimore Police Crime Lab and Sykesville Police officers.
Spaulding said the goal every year is to teach kids that crime scenes are not like they look on TV and foster an interest in law enforcement.
“Never taste anything you find on a crime scene,” he reminded the students Tuesday. While it might look smooth for a movie detective to stick their finger in a pile of white powder and determine its contents with a taste, real street drugs can be deadly even in tiny amounts.
Sixth-grader Audrey Peterson joined the program because she might want to go into crime scene investigation and she thought learning about it early would give her a better chance.
She was surprised by how many different jobs are involved in the investigation. “They’re all part of a team to figure out who did it,” she said.
Sam Heintz, an eighth-grader, was nearly an old pro in his third year of the program. He joked that he liked learning what not to do so he could commit better crimes.
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“It’s fun and your learn,” he said more seriously.