A team of Cass County middle school students dust for fingerprints from the collection of evidence they gathered from a mock crime scene. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)
A team of Cass County middle school students dust for fingerprints from the collection of evidence they gathered from a mock crime scene. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Archived Story

CSI: Cass County

Published 9:12am Thursday, June 26, 2014

Area teens learn about criminal justice system

Wednesday morning, at approximately 9 a.m., a group of Cass County middle school students discovered the grisly remains of an apparent murder victim laying on the floor of the library at Southwestern Michigan College.

Rather than panicking and calling the police, the children calmly put on latex gloves and began meticulously detailing the crime scene, photographing evidence, dusting for fingerprints and interviewing potential eyewitnesses.

While it have appeared that they were reenacting a scene from a television police procedural, the kids were actually participating in this year’s CSI Junior Academy, sponsored by SMC’s Educational Talent Search program. More than 30 kids from middle schools around the region registered for the weeklong course, learning about criminal justice system from local law enforcement officials.

The program was started around 12 years ago by then Dowagiac Police Chief Tom Atkinson, whose department organized the event for several years. ETS took over the program three years later and has sponsored it ever since, said Director Amy Anderson.

“The police department saw that enrollment numbers were decreasing every year, so they asked us if we could take it over,” she said. “We already had a built-in roster of kids, so it was smooth transition for us to make.”

The program is designed to give children their first real taste of the inner workings of a typical police case, from initial crime scene investigation to the criminal trial process. The students work with simulated cases throughout the week, culminating in a mock trial held on Friday.

“It’s like a shortened version of the actual criminal justice system,” Anderson said.

One of the unique things the program does is that is destroys the preconceived notion that the participants have about police investigations, with actual procedures glossed over in the media, Anderson said.

“They will never watch an episode of CSI or NCIS the same way again,” she said. “We watched an episode of CSI during lunch the other day, and the kids started to pick out all the things that were wrong.”

On Wednesday, the students began the investigation process of the major case presented to them this week: the murder of a member of the fictional “Blue Man Crew.” Splitting into three teams, the teens collected evidence from a number of staged crime scenes before gathering information from mock interviews with a medical examiner and crime lab technician, played by Anderson and MaKenzie Kreiner with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s always interesting,” Kreiner said. “You never get the same group of kids every year.”

After identifying and arresting a suspect for the crime, the kids were again divided into two, with one side acting as the prosecution team and the other the defense council. The two teams will face off against each other on Friday in the mock trial, where a guest jury will decide the fate of the suspect.

On Thursday, the group will take a trip down to the South Bend Crime Lab and the Niles Michigan State Police post to see working law enforcement officials in action.

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