Boning up on forensics


Staff writer

Thomas Jefferson High School students get to dabble in a little mystery.

Spurred by the popularity of television shows such as “CSI: Miami,” “Cold Case Files” and “Forensic Files,” the students are on a waiting list to get into one class: Forensic Science.

“I’m pretty sure if those shows were not on the air, this class wouldn’t be as popular as it is now,” said class instructor Tom Decker, a science teacher in the Federal Way school district for nine years.

This is the first year the high school is offering a forensic science class. Decker is teaching two introduction to forensic science classes, with a total of 57 students between them. Twenty-nine students were turned away.

He got the idea for the class after he attended a conference hosted by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in St. Louis, Mo. in the summer of 2002. There, he watched forensic anthropologists and scientists demonstrate how the foundational skills for forensic science can be applied and taught in the classroom.

His forensic science classes are very popular, and students seem to love it.

“I’m thrilled. They have been so enthusiastic,” Decker said. “They’re really a group of kids that are analytical and have an aptitude for this kind of stuff.”

Seniors in this semester’s class so far have studied the science of toxicology –– poisons and illicit drugs in the body — and odontology. Forensic odontology is the art and science of using paradental knowledge to help determine the solution of legal issues in civil and in criminal matters.

Students also studied the decomposition of flesh by leaving raw pork chops in various environments — including in salt water or exposed to air — and observing how the different environments affect decomposition.

Next semester, they will go on to take Decker’s Forensic Science 2, where they will apply their skills and discuss high-profile crimes, including the Jon Benet Ramsey case and the Green River Killer murders.

Senior Amy Miller is in the class. She said she started watching forensic crime shows on television.

“I just got hooked. And I thought it was really interesting how they could find murderers and piece together information,” Miller said.

Although she was thinking of becoming a teacher, Miller is now considering studying forensic science in college.

“Science has always been one of my favorite subjects,” she said.

Senior Celeste Gee said the class seems “more real” in comparison to the other science classes she took, including chemistry.

Decker knows how to make it happen.

“He’s so fun. He’s never boring,” Gee said. “He has his little Zen candle out (when he’s upset). Everyone really respects him because he respects us as people. He treats us as people and as mature students.”

Senior Joseph Wolleat discovered he wanted make a career out of forensics after he began watching the TV show, “Forensics Files,” researching the profession on the Internet and taking Decker’s class.

“In other classes, you learn about things that aren’t really important to life at the time. Forensic Science is popular and there are a lot of labs compared to a regular science class,” Wolleat said.

Earlier this month, Wolleat took part in a job shadow at the State Crime Lab’s ballistics and firearms lab, where he observed professionals comparing evidence under a microscope.

Decker considers the forensics classes as part of the state level 13th-year plan, which prepares high school seniors for college and career after graduation.

“It shows a relevance that what you do in the classroom really matters, and it allows you to see the application of that,” Decker said.

Decker said he already has sophomores asking him if they can squeeze into the class when seniors if they don’t take chemistry. They can’t —chemistry and biology are both prerequisites for the forensics class.

To make the class happen, Decker submitted a grant to the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation, which grants money for literacy programs. The foundation’s sub-committee reviewed the grant request and the board of directors approved it.

Decker received $5,000 to teach the classes this year, plus $428 to attend the summer 2002 conference.

Decker “is a great example of an exciting new teacher,” said Teri Hickel, education foundation’s executive director.

Decker also obtained additional funds for the classes from the high school’s community liaison, Sandy Duvall, who got the money from the school’s career center budget.

“With the 13th-year plan handed down by the state, this is just one more way we can help students see the relevance of high school classes in biology, chemistry, anatomy and math, and how those classes dovetail into a career future, such as forensic science,” Duvall said.

“If it weren’t for the Education Foundation and Sandy Duvall’s work, this class wouldn’t have happened,” Decker said. “I’m so grateful for them.”

Now that he secured the classes, Decker said he’s looking for donations of poseable mannequins to portray “victims” in his class labs.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565,

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