Culpeper Middle School principal Jesse Blackburn was kidnapped last Friday.

No need to worry, as a group of students from Rhonda Bollum’s gifted class solved the crime.

The forensic exercise is part of a program devised by Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office deputy Dana Dodson, who works with Bollum’s gifted students to teach them how detectives solve crimes and then asks them to use their problem solving skills to solve one of their own.

Entering its seventh year of existence, Dodson’s presentation takes a prominent figure at the school - in this case Blackburn - and puts them in a crime scene. 

On Friday, Blackburn’s office was shuttered with police tape and inside were evidence markers - pointing out areas that the students would have to catalog and then analyze while conducting interviews with witnesses and potential suspects. 

Dodson said that allowing students an opportunity to have a hands on experience teaches them more than if she was to lecture them about what a detective does. 

“They are learning to make inclusions from the inferences that the evidence leads them to,” Dodson said. “They enjoy the hands on (aspect) and they love working with the staff who act as the suspects in the crime.”

Dodson said that students have come back to her and told her how much they have enjoyed her teaching and how it inspired them.

“We’ve started a cadet program at the sheriff’s office and some of the kids have said they remembered having this lesson and that sparked their interest (in criminology),” Dodson said.

For the sheriff’s department, it serves an important role - community relations.

“It helps them see we can relate to them and we’re not just a uniformed authority figure,” Dodson said. 

On Friday, the team of Andrew Martin, Blake Shaffer and Nathan Langham roamed the halls - interrogating teachers and collecting evidence. Each student had a role - a note taker, a photographer, an interviewer and a timekeeper. Inside Blackburn's office were five sets of evidence - a tennis racket, a size 5 New Balance shoe, a blue Sycamore Park coffee mug, a book and a pack of gum. 

They grilled librarian Annette Nicolay - a book was found at the crime scene and they were suspicious.

Nicolay said she enjoys helping the gifted class.

“This is a great program, it’s good for the kids to figure it out,” she said. 

The students had to confirm that all the pieces of evidence could be connected to the suspect. 

Martin thought it was Nicolay who was the culprit.

“She was acting very nervous and skittish,” Martin said. “She was reporting her reading line, for almost every question - and we found a book at the crime scene.”

Shaffer convinced his team otherwise.

“I think Mrs. Simpson did it,” he said. “She said she likes teaching kids the importance of reading, but she teaches math and she likes garlic bread and there was a pack of gum. And she said she likes tennis.”

Shaffer turned out to be right - Simpson was the culprit. The communication between the team members was important in solving the crime. 

“I learned how to work as a team,”  Langham said.

Martin said the class has led him to an interest in a new career.

“It made me want to be CSI (crime scene investigator),” Martin said. “I have a passion for photography and that can be used by CSI.”

Bollum said that the exercise teaches inferring and connects students to law enforcement in a positive environment.

“I’ve had kids that are older that come back and ask if we are still doing the activity,” Bollum said. “The remember it and they enjoy it.”

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