May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

A glass case near the entrance to Waverly-Shell Rock High School recently displayed a most unusual exhibit: a letter scrawled by imprisoned mass murderer Charles Manson. “Flys feed on death + need death to feed,” Manson wrote science teacher James Hurley, with whom he has carried on a six-year correspondence. “Fear of death in humans won’t let life feed on death.”

Manson’s rantings are but one of the unorthodox teaching aids that Hurley, 51, incorporates into his wildly popular elective for seniors in Waverly, Iowa—forensics, the science of deciphering physical evidence to solve crimes. His students analyze simulated blood-spatter patterns and run DNA tests of hair samples in a classroom lab. They dissect infamous murders, from JFK’s to JonBenét’s. For homework some read Helter Skelter, about the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and six others by Manson’s death cult. Such study topics have drawn 75 of the school’s 180 seniors to Hurley’s course. Says Chris Stafford, 18: “It’s pretty cool.”

When Hurley started his class in 1993, he was in the vanguard of a trend that has begun to catch on in the nation’s high schools. “I noticed when we did a chemistry lab related to crime-scene evidence, the kids just flipped over it,” says Hurley. Other teachers are noticing too. Although the number of schools offering forensics courses is unknown, educators across the U.S. are signing up for workshops on the subject run by the National Science Teachers Association and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Hurley supplements his salary by teaching forensics to colleagues. “If the room holds 125, there are 300 people trying to get in,” he says. “The interest level is astounding.”

So is the decibel level of the criticism. Opponents such as James Alan Fox, a criminal-justice professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, believe that forensics courses can be psychologically harmful, desensitizing teens to violence and feeding unhealthy impulses. Fox concedes that forensics makes science exciting to kids turned on by TV shows like CBS’s hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Still, he says, teachers shouldn’t “pander to students’ morbid fascination with murder and death.”

Principal Jere Vyverberg dismisses that argument. “This course is designed to create higher-order thinking skills,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to produce here—not an appreciation for crime, but for what it takes to solve crimes.” Adds Rebecca Scholtz, 18: “It’s not like we’re just reading about serial killers and talking about blood and guts.” In fact, the students are helping to crack real cases, including that of a teacher victimized by vandals who planted his yard with hot dogs on plastic forks, attracting packs of house pets, possums and raccoons. After the sleuths lifted fingerprints, the teacher, who suspected some of his own students, announced to his class that he was holding damning evidence—and that the guilty parties could come clean or face the cops. The culprits confessed.

Parents back Hurley as well. Greg Scholtz, 50, believes his daughter Rebecca is learning about life as well as science. “This is a small town in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “We encourage our kids to explore and not be frightened of things in the world.”

Hurley came from the middle of nowhere himself. He and his two sisters were reared on a farm in Madrid, Iowa, by Genevieve and Ray, both deceased. At Madrid High he was captain of the basketball team and played drums in the band. Planning to become a science teacher, Hurley went on to Drake University in Des Moines but interrupted his studies in 1970 to join the National Guard. At Fort Lee in Virginia he had his first brush with forensics as a ballistics analyst. When his yearlong active-duty stint was over, he returned to Drake and wed his college sweetheart, Janet, 49, now a kindergarten teacher. (The couple have two children, Tim, 30, an optometrist, and Staci, 27, a teacher.) After graduating in ’72 he took the first job he found—and stayed.

When Hurley started his forensics course, one of his first moves was to write to Manson, hoping that the murderer could offer students insights into the criminal mind. But Manson’s incoherent ramblings proved just one thing: “He’s crazy,” says Abby Goetzinger, 18. “That’s how you sum it up.” Next case.

Christina Cheakalos

Lauren Comander in Waverly

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