Teachers Dissect Criminal Justice in Prime Time

A teacher examines skeletal remains at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility.
A teacher examines skeletal remains at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility.

High school criminal justice instructors got a reality check on various aspects of crime during an annual training at the College of Criminal Justice.

Titled “Criminal Justice in Prime Time: Truths and Misconceptions in the Media,” the training was designed for teachers to dispel the myths about crime and the media, gangs, forensic DNA, women in criminal justice, capital punishment, skeletal remains, and photography. The two-day training, which included 46 teachers from across the state, also provided ready-made lessons for their classrooms.

The presentations were given by professionals in the field and faculty members from Sam Houston State University with expertise in particular areas.
Officer Eric Vento of the Houston Police Department Gang Task Force and Everett Harrell of the Huntsville Independent School District Police gave teachers an eye-opening presentation on gangs in schools. From the fourth largest U.S. city to rural communities, gangs are alive, well, and growing in Texas.

“Some of these gang members have no father figure and other kids are being bullied and are looking for protection,” said Vento. “It’s a huge problem, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

Huntsville ISD Officer Everett Harrell shows gang doodling in a student's notebook.
Huntsville ISD Officer Everett Harrell shows gang doodling in a student's notebook.
Kids are entering gangs as early as elementary school, and their gang affiliations are often reflected in their music, clothing, accessories, tattoos, hand signs, graffiti, doodles, and writing. Teachers are on the front line not only to help identify gang members, but also to turn kids’ lives around.

“You can be a positive role model,” said Harrell. “You can get to know them, get to know what makes them tick. You may be the first person in their lives that care about them.”

Many students are openly displaying their gang affiliations in school in the numbers, letters, or symbols that they use. For example, gang members will often use numbers instead of letters or area codes to identify their gang. Symbols, such as a star and religious paraphernalia, also may serve as clues to gang affiliation. In writing, Crip-affiliated gangs may misspell words ending in –ck with –cc to avoid any reference to Crip Killer (ck). Handshakes that include the formation of the letters “C” or “B” often denote gang affiliation, and musicians, like 50 Cent and Snoop Dog, glorify gang activity. Graffiti is often the “newspaper of the streets” for gangs.

Many of the fights on campus are actually gang initiations, and females often are inducted into gangs by having sex with a gang member.

“You have to look at the totality of the situation,” said Harrell.

Sgt. Susan Martin demonstrates how to photograph a knife.
Sgt. Susan Martin demonstrates how to photograph a knife.
Teachers also learned about the basics of DNA and forensic anthropology and how they are applied to criminal cases. Unlike the CSI series, cases are not solved in an hour, and many of the processes are very complex.

For example, Dr. David Gangitano of the Department of Forensic Science, explained how the advances in biotechnology (rapid PCR, next generation sequencing) can impact human DNA identification. Dr. Bytheway discussed how skeletal remains are analyzed to determine the age, sex and cultural origins of a victim. Sgt. Susan Monroe, of the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department Physical Evidence Section presented the reality of crime scene photography, which use different views of the evidence, including long, mid-range and close up shots, to help tell the story of the crime in court.

Dr. Bytheway took on the show “Bones” to explain the evidence that can and cannot be determined by skeletal remains. The Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility at SHSU can help build a biological profile of the victim, identify the unknowns and aid in solving crime. In real life, all analyses are done in the lab, bright lighting and microscopes are used, and biological profiles of victims are not given out at the crime scene. In addition, it is difficult to determine the sex of juveniles, gage bullet size, and identify the time of death from human remains.

Teachers study bullet wound impacts to the skull in the lab.
Teachers study bullet wound impacts to the skull in the lab.
Dr. Melissa Tackett-Gibson, an instructor with the College of Criminal Justice, discussed how the media portrays children as tragic victims or evil monsters. With all the hype over children who are murdered, only a small percentage of these homicides are committed by strangers. Murder by children is also a very rare occurrence with only 27,000 homicides between 1980 and 1997 committed by juveniles from 14 to 17 years old. There is also a dichotomy that occurs with children. On one hand, children are being sexualized like adults and, on the other hand, they are being protected into late adolescents by “tiger Moms” or “helicopter parents.”

“Our need to protect our children is far more than it has been historically,” said Dr. Tackett-Gibson. “Children are far, far more likely to be abused, harmed, or murdered by family or friends.”

Dr. Dennis Longmire, Professor for the College of Criminal Justice, presented myths and realities about capital punishment based on recent research by Dr. David Garland, a law professor at New York University. Dr. Garland found that the U.S. is not a death penalty nation because only a few states – mostly in the south – actually carry out the practice. He also said that while polls indicate the majority of the public supports the death penalty, when questioned further, that support wanes.

Dr. Dennis Longmire discussed the death penalty.
Dr. Dennis Longmire discussed the death penalty.
Finally, Dr. Rita Watkins, Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, discussed women in law enforcement. Women currently make up about 12 percent of all law enforcement jobs. During the 70s women were characterized as “too emotional, too passive, or too physically weak” for police work. Even though women today have come a long way and reached top leadership positions, there are still some myths that plague women in the field. These misconceptions include that women are not physically imposing, get frightened, have little support, have relationship problems, or have limited career paths.

“Badges come in gold or silver, not pink or blue,” Dr. Watkins said. “Policing is a challenging and rewarding profession limited only by the abilities of the individual officer. There are thousands of successful women in policing today. As more women have entered the profession, there is greater acceptance among their peers and the public.”


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