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Student detectives unable to solve teacher ‘murder’


AYER — All the elements needed to solve a fictional murder mystery had been assembled in Jessie Yackel’s classroom when her students arrived one recent morning and, as anticipated, found the room cordoned off with crime tape and their Advanced Algebra teacher and another Ayer Shirley Regional High School teacher, Catelyn Hillman, lying on the floor in pools of fake blood.

The two women had been murdered, according to the storyline crafted for this mock crime scene, the dramatic last lesson in a challenging, hands-on project geared to spark students’ interest and demonstrate real world applications for algebra, a subject often opined as having no practical purpose beyond the classroom.

Using forensic tools and techniques they’d learned from Detective Andrew Kularski of the Ayer Police Department, which provided materials for the class to work with — and math, of course — the student sleuths set out to solve the crime, their assignment.

The bodies lay a few feet apart, surrounded by “evidence.” Donning surgical shoe-covers and gloves, the junior detectives dusted for fingerprints, examined blood spatter patterns, measured distances between footprints, calculated angles, sketched and speculated. Some of the data they collected would help them estimate times of death for each victim.

The police had already identified the murder weapons: scissors and a three-hole punch.

With their teacher down for the count, the students were supervised by their forensics instructor and crime scene coach, Kularski, who worked with Yackel on the project and wrote the crime story.

It began with a call to Ayer PD at 10:30 a.m., when an “unnamed” female caller reported that the two teachers had been found (dead) in Yackel’s classroom. Responding officers secured the scene and called the medical examiner and investigators.

Kularski spoke with “several people” on scene and learned that eight people had entered the room before police arrived. Role-played by other ASRHS teachers, those eight people were the suspects. Seven had scripts. One did not: the killer.

Part of the assignment was to interview the suspects: Lolly Capasso, Barbara Allard, Kim Sweetland, Melanie Wittmier, Jon Sweeney, Mark Guisto, Peter Gubellini and, finally, Derek Patno, whom all the student groups identified as the murderer when they presented their reports.

They were all wrong. Sweeney did it.

If they had followed the detective’s directives and their teacher’s instructions — basically, “Do the math!” everything would have fit into place like puzzle pieces and they’d have solved the crime. But instead, they relied too heavily on interviews conducted before they’d analyzed the data.

The rules had been spelled out and the students had all the tools, plus the time, to do the job, including pictorial charts and a mathematical formula to estimate height based on footprints and a grading rubric that clearly defined their teacher’s expectations as well as a wrap-up questionnaire for the students in each group to rate each other.

All things considered, Kularski and Yackel both said the project was a success and they aim to repeat it next year, even though the students accused the wrong suspect this time around. “You guys didn’t rely on the math,” the teacher said.

Last year’s class also fingered the wrong suspect, but it was an experiment well worth repeating, she said. It all started when she asked School Resource Officer Jen Bigelow to help her stage a murder mystery for her students to solve, Yackel said. “Then, Andrew (Kularski) contacted me.” she said. The Ayer PD was super helpful, start to finish, she said. “They went above and beyond.”

The fictional mystery was played out in full, from investigating at the crime scene to presenting the case to the arrest. “The kids think it’s so cool,” Yackel said.