Early in the morning on Nov. 3, long before students' voices echoed through the halls of St. Paul's Arlington High School, two custodians found a man's body in the Great Hall. Nearby, a desk and a chair had been overturned. Blood had splattered across the floor.
Well, not really.
Arlington High School is in the middle of a staged three-week Law & Order drama, complete with a forensic investigation, suspects, arrests and trials. There really is a fake body in the Great Hall, which serves as the school's cafeteria, and there really is a box collecting evidence in the back of the school's library.
Every student in the school is participating, whether it be the English Language Learners conducting interviews with "persons of interest" or art students producing computerized sketches of suspects.
The point of the lesson, organizers say, is to draw the entire school into a real-life application of skills they're learning: How to calculate the angle at which a drop of blood stained the floor, or how to scour a crime scene with black lights to reveal invisible clues.
But above all, they're learning the importance of not jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in.
On Wednesday, one physics student looked at the body on the floor, blood covering his neck, and made a remark about the bullet wound.
Teacher Donna Maier jumped on the comment.
"Who told you it was a bullet wound?" she said.
"I don't know, people said it was a bullet wound," he countered.
"People said? Have I taught you nothing of science?" she cried.
A school-wide lesson
Arlington High School is a struggling school of about 1,500 students in St. Paul's North End. It's now in line for restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind law because of poor state test scores.
But this year, Arlington is in its first full year of a BioSMART program, which gives the magnet school a science, math and technology focus.
Started with a $6 million federal grant, it introduces students to bioindustries, including medical and health sciences, business and marketing, and engineering.
District officials hope the BioSMART moves will, among other things, help satisfy state officials and prevent the school from facing more drastic restructuring.
In the meantime, the grant requires that the school come up with a "school-wide lesson," with no stipulations on how long it should take, said Mary Hanson, a forensic science teacher who designed the three-week investigation.
Teachers voted on the murder-mystery theme, and Hanson spent the first part of the school year weaving it together. The drama -- akin to an extreme version of a murder mystery dinner party -- took a stunning amount of preparation.
"With BioSMART, we want to help make connections across content areas," said Eric Mjolsness, the school's Bio- SMART program manager. The mystery, he said, "is to show that there are these connections between all the subjects."
Family and Consumer Science students eventually will analyze a fiber found on the victim's hand, and English students will analyze suspects' handwriting.
Yes, Hanson said, she's had concerns about bringing even fake violence into an inner-city high school.
"Nobody wants to glorify that a murder took place," she said, pointing out that her requirement from the beginning was that no weapons or drugs be involved in the crime.
Together in the end
Students follow the news of the case every morning during the "A-town Update: Special Report," and teachers -- or "special agents" -- can be seen walking the school with badges and sunglasses.
While he admits the exercise is "kind of corny," senior Kong Cheng Moua thinks it is cool that the drama involves everybody. "Everybody will get a chance at it," he said. "I like how complex it is. Everybody comes together in the end for one answer."
Moua's physics class was examining the blood splatter geometry at the scene on Wednesday, but he also had spent time in his calculus class using body temperature to find the estimated time of death.
"It's pretty fun trying to find out what happened," said 16-year-old Nor Vang. "Kids are talking about it."
Emily Johns • 651-298-1541