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On May 14, “Gerald Harding”, a fictitious custodian at the old Baker High School, was tried for arson and was given a guilty verdict. The case, written by Mrs. Rost’s science research class was based on the Feb. 16, 1967 fire that caused the destruction of the school that was located where the current Longfellow school is now.

The class began by interviewing Carl Hepperle at the O’Fallon Historical Museum. He was a volunteer firefighter who fought the high school fire. He explained which fire trucks were used, how they formed a “water wall”, and how the fire became trapped in the rafters above the gym. Hepperle told students that the fire probably started in the electrical box by the gym, but the cause was unknown. The students also asked him about the location of the boiler and how it worked. They wanted to find different ways that the fire could have started to build their case. Hepperle told them the boiler was in the basement by the Home Ec room. He also shared that there was a bathroom next to the boiler room. He would sometimes play cards with his friends in the boiler room and one of them would keep watch for teachers or administrators in the bathroom to warn the other students. Hepperle also provided a sketch of a blueprint so students could visualize the building.

Melissa Rost, the museum curator, also showed students old photographs of the inside and outside of the school, and of the building burning. She had a brick from the building showing char marks and other artifacts. She even had photos of the fire trucks and firemen used. The oldest fire truck is also displayed at the museum. Students used the old truck to develop their case and later plant evidence.

From this information, science research students developed a storyline in which they made four fictitious suspects that may have caused the fire. Students created evidence with fingerprints, ink analysis, journal entries, school records, the blueprints, photographs, and suspect statements. Once complete, this was given to Mrs. Rost’s Chemistry class. They served as the CSI team and analyzed the evidence. After compiling their evidence, they presented their case to Mrs. Hoversland’s government class and recommended that “Gerald Harding” be tried for committing arson.

Mrs. Hoversland’s senior government classes were tasked with the trial of the case. First period students served as jurors and Olivia Gunderson served as the judge. They spent their week preparing for the trial by watching the movie “12 Angry Men” to understand what takes place in the jury room, and learning about the responsibilities and purpose of jury duty. The 5th period students took on the role as the prosecution team. Sady Harbaugh served as the “BHS” attorney and was responsible for proving beyond a reasonable doubt that “Gerald Harding” was guilty. The seventh period class was “Gerald Harding’s” defense team. The lead attorney for the defense was Hannah Goerndt. Both the prosecution and defense teams had to review the evidence and witness statements to develop the best line of questioning to make their case. After each side had finished closing arguments, it was time for the jury to deliberate.

The jury room was a tenuous place of discussion, as it should be. The students did a great job of playing devil’s advocate with one another and really taking their roles as jurors seriously. They held several preliminary votes, debated the evidence, read the jury instructions, and finally reached a unanimous decision of GUILTY.

Following the guilty verdict, students went over to the O’Fallon Historical Museum for snacks and treats, a photo booth, to look at artifacts from the fire, and to tour the museum.To learn more about the high school fire and other local history, visit the museum!


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