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Sykesville police program gives kids a taste of crime scene investigation

It was a Sykesville man out walking his dog who discovered the remains: a tibia here, an ulna there and the human skull resting near the edge of an aging concrete drainage culvert. On Tuesday afternoon, Carroll County Sheriff's Office Crime Scene Unit Supervisor Jessica Bullock stood just outside the yellow police tape while the crime scene investigators snapped pictures and laid out yellow plastic tags next to the potential pieces of evidence: a shovel, a pistol and a crushed can of soda.

"They were dispatched to a 'suspicious condition,'" Bullock said, referring to the state of the human remains. "The dog may or may not have scattered some of the bones."

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There was no real cadaver found on Tuesday, of course, and the bones and other evidence arrayed on the grass outside Sykesville Middle School on Tuesday afternoon were made of plastic. This was a simulated crime scene, part of the Sykesville Police Department's Junior CSI program, a four-week-long course in crime scene investigation for middle school-aged children, according to Sykesville Chief of Police Michael Spaulding.

"It's community outreach. It's involving our local kids — getting an opportunity to get to know them, and [them] to get to know us," Spaulding said. "Hopefully it will inspire some of them to pursue careers in law enforcement and to have fun."

The children in the program — mostly Sykesville Middle students but some from other schools — had been coming to the program every Tuesday since Sept. 9, learning team-building exercises; basic techniques, such as how to lift fingerprints; cybersecurity; and how to put those skills together to solve a crime. Several police experts came together to help craft the lessons for the program, Spaulding said.

"It was a joint presentation of a homicide investigator from the state police, a detective from Baltimore County that does the forensic sketches and a crime scene technician from the Carroll County Sheriff's Office," Spaulding said. "The three of them put their heads together and put on a mock crime scene and ran through from start to finish the roles of the crime scene investigator, the role of the investigating detective and finally the role of the forensic sketch artist."

On Tuesday, the children were working mock crime scenes of their own as a sort of final exam before a graduation from the program. While one team was investigating the bones found by the drainage culvert, another was inside the school, where they examined an explosive device, eventually determined to be a fake, inside a child's locker along with a threatening letter. A third team was busy documenting all the pieces of evidence surrounding the discovery of a human body in a trash can on the side of the campus.

The information, and the way it was presented in the course, was surprising to Sykesville Middle School eighth-grader Marilyn Davidson, who said she had joined the program to see whether law enforcement was something she might consider as a career.

"I didn't think it would be this elaborate … I would expect sitting down and being taught something and not actually coming outside and actually doing it myself," she said. "It was difficult in some parts because you have to get everything together and make sure everything is perfect and ready."

At one point, Spaulding approached each of the teams and began ducking under the yellow police line.

"Can I come into the crime scene?" he asked, his voice pitched for authority. "Is that all right?"

"No, you have to sign in first!" came the collective answer from the children working the crime scenes.

"One thing we stressed to them was [even though] a higher-ranking officer, the chief of police, shows up, that crime scene is yours. You own it," Spaulding said. "Don't allow someone to come in and tread all over the crime scene that is not properly attired."

Spaulding said that beyond reaching out to children who might one day become police officers, part of the goal of the program — now in its sixth year — is to give students a dose of reality to balance what they see on television. Crime scenes are not typically flush with clues that lead to the certain arrest of the bad guy, he said, and it's important that children who will one day grow up to be citizens see all the work that goes into investigating a crime.

It was a lesson that was not lost on Nicholas Panagrotopoulas, also a Sykesville Middle eighth-grader. Nicholas said that he has always wanted to be a law enforcement officer, that the idea of being out in the field and helping people is what inspires him, but that the class let him see more of the day-to-day work of law enforcement.

"Just seeing a lot of the data recording — it surprised me a little bit more than what you see on TV. More detailed," he said. "It made me appreciate more not only what police do but what crime scene techs do every day."

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Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

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