MANCHESTER, NH – Follow the yellow crime scene tape from the outer door just off Notre Dame Avenue, to a door that leads upstairs, and down a hallway that’s been cordoned off next to a particular classroom and you’ll find a swarm of sleuthing students busy collecting evidence. The question: Who had it in for Ms. Aspinwall?
Was it a student with a grudge? Or maybe a fellow teacher with less seniority looking for a parking spot upgrade?
For right now, no one knows for certain what happened to science teacher Christine Aspinwall – only that she was found “lifeless” on the classroom floor on May 3. Behind her, evidence of a meth lab, and next to her, the scattered contents of a backpack. Drops of “blood” and other evidence is still waiting to be catalogued, marked for detectives with numbered yellow crime markers.
Until the investigation is complete and an arrest is made, everyone’s a suspect – perhaps even crime and justice teacher Tina Mulleavey, whose only alibi at the moment is that she is the one who came up with this hands-on exercise in crime scene investigation, which brings students from seven different disciplines together to unravel the crime.
“We have students from English, theater, art, law, crime and justice, media and science/biotech working on this, as well as community members – the state medical examiner’s office, Manchester Police detectives, DEA agents and fire and rescue personnel,” says Mulleavey, noting that unfortunately the state medical examiner could not make it, due to an actual dead body that turned up someplace else.
Mulleavey has been teaching crime and justice for 12 of her 24 years at West High School. She’s been staging the CSI mock crime scene for about six years.
“Everything I’ve taught them in the course since January comes together in one culminating activity, and I get to see teaching come alive,” Mulleavey says. “I absolutely love it.”
For the next few weeks students who have been learning the nuances of fingerprinting, blood analysis, blood spatter, crime scene measurement, and hair and fiber analysis, will take all the evidence gathered from the mock crime scene back to the classroom for processing.
“The hair and fiber team will be looking at evidence under the microscope, the fingerprinting team will be identifying characteristics and patterns, and when we get to suspects, they’ll be trying to match all that. Our detectives will be trying to put all the pieces together and as a team we’re going to try and figure out what happened to Ms. Aspinwall here,” says Mulleavey, gesturing toward a pool of blood on the floor – all that’s left of poor Ms. Aspinwall, whose body has since been removed by “authorities.”
“We don’t know if it was a homicide or an overdose – we just don’t know yet. That will be our job, to figure out the story,” Mulleavey says. “We’ll use our artists to give us some idea of what the suspect might look like, and student reporters will work on sending out a newspaper. We’ll also send it out on Westview [school’s video/AV club] and update the school on our progress.”
An arrest will be broadcast live via Westview. A case will be prepared by students and a mock trial will follow.
“They’ll have about a week to prepare the case, and hopefully we’ll get a conviction,” Mulleavey says.
Over the years Mulleavey has seen several students go on to study criminal justice or related majors in college and then to careers as police officers, DEA agents, or other fields – including one student who took the course five years ago and has since gotten her U.S. citizenship so she could pursue a career in law enforcement.
Jada Gilbert, a senior heading to Saint Anselm College in the fall to study politics, is working the scene as an investigator.
“Right now we’re collecting hair and blood samples – we take two swabs, one for our class and one for the blood analysis team in biotech,” says Gilbert. She will also serve as part of the prosecution team when the case goes to trial.
“I think it’s a really interesting class, and I love the way Ms. Mulleavey teaches – I also had her for civics,” says Gilbert, who has no more time for small talk, rejoins her team as they swab small puddles of “blood” and bag up the evidence.
Below: Teacher Tina Mulleavey dispatches her student investigators, via Facebook Live
Nearby there are boxes of items collected from the scene. Behind the boxes, students paired with detectives are giving witness statements. There is a chair and a coat stand with crime tape in the middle of the floor. And in the rear of the classroom, a team is discovering fingerprints on the door glass.
“Are you sure?,” asks one of the students. “I’m 100 percent positive,” says another, going in for a closer look with gloved hands, and determining that there are prints on both sides of the glass. “Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it,” he says, to a fellow student investigator on the other side of the glass.
Mulleavey says the school-wide activity grew out of a street law course she used to teach.
“Every time we got to criminal law unit, the kids got so excited about it. Then ‘CSI’ came out on TV, and I got to thinking, what if I created a course offering a crime law unit, and we set up crime scenes? That’s how it started,” Mulleavey says.
“Throughout the year I’ve set up mini crime scenes to prepare them for this event, so they can learn about fingerprinting, or blood analysis. By the time we get to this moment, they’re using the whole criminal investigation aspect, and a little forensic science,” Mulleavey says. “It’s a great experience for the students, and we’re so grateful for the support from everyone in the community who helps make this a success.”