On a recent February morning, students in Bailey Galvin-Poellot’s American Justice, Crime and Punishment classes poured over stacks of official-looking manilla folders and evidence reports as they worked to match the crimes to their perpetrators.

The folders contained comprehensive profiles that students had compiled on some of America’s most notorious serial killers.

“They all chose a serial killer and then they did a criminal profile on them,” Galvin-Poellot said. “I had them create a whole folder of their victims, their weapons, their final thoughts, the psychological profile, all of that.”

After their profiles were complete, the students were tasked with filling out an evidence report as if the serial killer they had profiled had just found their next victim. The next day, those evidence reports were distributed along with the criminal profiles, and students were tasked with matching each crime detailed in the report to the appropriate profile.

“They’re becoming investigators today,” Galvin-Poellot said. “This project has been creating a portfolio and learning about serial killers, but today they’re investigating and putting crimes with the serial killers.”

The students took into consideration crime scene information such as the type of weapon used, victim characteristics, location of the crime and evidence left behind to identify the killer.

The hands-on project yielded high student engagement and gave them the opportunity to see first-hand the intersection of criminology and crime scene investigation, as well as how the smallest piece of evidence can be used to crack a case.

“I learned how long it will take to find out who actually killed someone and how police will take every single piece of evidence they can find, like a piece of hair or carpet fiber, and try to find the person, even with such little evidence and how well they can do it,” freshman A. Bleim said.

Bleim did her project on Bobby Joe Long, who was active in the Tampa Bay area in the 1980s and was caught after releasing a victim who told him she was the only one left to care for a sick parent.

“He was caught because he let go of a victim after kidnapping her for 26 hours because she was lying about how she had a sick father and she was the only one left to take care of him,” she said. “She left all kinds of evidence in the house and car, so they were able to find the evidence that she placed and catch him.”

But perhaps what struck Bleim most about the project was the fact that the killers they were studying were capable of carrying out heinous acts but yet were able function in society.

Freshman Makinzi Nupp echoed that sentiment, pointing to H.H. Holmes, who is estimated to have killed between 20 and 200 people in the late 1800s. He ran a pharmacy and operated a hotel, which was how he lured in his victims.

“He was actually born into a wealthy family and was intelligent, so I don’t know why he would do that,” Nupp said.

The American Justice, Crime and Punishment class is driven by a project-based curriculum allowing for independent exploration and development of analytical and evaluative skills to examine expressions of American legal justice, the sources of American crimes and their cultural relevance, as well as the different types of punishment and how our legal system affects the American identity.

Galvin-Poellot has had no shortage of such projects for her students.

“It’s been a lot of fun creating these opportunities for the students. They are loving the class,” she said.

Her students have studied historical cases that impact our policies and criminal justice system today, such as the cases that resulted in the creation of the Miranda Rights, Amber Alerts, Pharmaceutical changes and cyberbullying initiatives.

They also watched a documentary about the OJ Simpson case before collecting evidence, debating, and writing an argumentative essay answering these questions:

They’ve discuss the Bystander Effect, rehabilitation services and recidivism, as well as gotten to listen to local criminal justice professionals, including a Burlington police officer, a detective and a Des Moines County Judge.

“It’s a cool class,” Bleim said.

Next week, Galvin-Poellot will take students on a field trip to Western Illinois University for Public Safety day, where they will get to attend sessions on police and emergency service protocols and procedures.

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