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Hey - I Know That Dead Guy

CATEGORY: Autopsy, Field Trip, Friends

DIVISION: Modern Evil

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School Autopsy Tours Canceled

Maureen Feighan / The Detroit News

WATERFORD -- For the first time in nearly a decade, the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office isn't offering public school tours this year after a bizarre coincidence this past spring in which a high school group from Waterford watched the autopsy of a 14-year-old girl from the same district.

Oakland County officials said they decided to stop the tours after they were contacted by the girl's parents, who found out about the tour from a student on it and were very upset. Tours are still available for paramedics, police cadets and more career-oriented groups.

Mike Zehnder, the county's director of public services, acknowledges it was "a poor decision" to let the tour go on given the circumstances. But the medical examiner had no legal obligation to contact the girl's parents or keep the autopsy private.

"It was just an unfortunate situation," Zehnder said. "... It was a very popular learning experience (the school tours), but given the human side of this, they were discontinued. I know how I would've felt" as a parent.

Each August, Bob Gerds' phone would ring so incessantly he couldn't keep up with it. One high school science teacher after another would call, hoping to claim a coveted spot to tour the medical examiner's office, which Gerds oversees, and watch an autopsy. By mid-August, tour slots for the entire school year were often filled.

Gerds said he told the teacher who brought the Waterford Kettering High School group in March that the autopsy they'd be observing was of a Waterford middle school student but she said it was OK to proceed.

"She said it was fine," Gerds said. "I told the students that if any of them knew this girl, they should not go back there."

Rhonda Lessel, a Waterford School District spokeswoman, said the teacher talked to her class beforehand and asked whether the group wanted to continue. The class was made up of mostly 12th-graders with some 11th-graders.

None of the students knew the girl, who had committed suicide, but one did know the girl's brother, according to a parent whose child was not on the tour.

"I believe the teacher did what she thought was in the best interest of the students," Lessel said. Lessel said the teacher was not disciplined.

Watching an autopsy -- where attendants open the deceased's chest and skull so a doctor can examine each organ, including the brain, to determine a cause of death -- could be traumatic for a young person, especially if he or she knew the deceased, said Z. Wendy Karougian-Moore, a psychotherapist from Southfield.

Depending on his or her background, "it might be like post-traumatic stress disorder," Karougian-Moore said. "...They could experience nightmares."

For nearly a decade, a trip to the Oakland County Medical Examiner's office was one of the hottest field trips in town for high school biology and forensic science classes. Drawn in part by television shows like "CSI," more than 2,500 people a year used to the tour Oakland's facilities.

Oakland County, which has a glass observation and platform attached to its examining room so tour groups can observe autopsies, was one of the last counties in Michigan to allow high school group tours.

The Wayne County Medical Examiner's office discontinued its school tours a couple years ago because students weren't taking them seriously, said Chief Investigator Albert Samuels. Macomb County lets high school groups tour its building but not watch autopsies.

"We were finding out that a lot of the (high school) students were treating it like a trip to the planetarium," Samuels said.

Before the March incident, Waterford Schools had routinely sent groups to Oakland's medical examiner's office to witness autopsies as part of a class curriculum, Lessel said.

"It extended learning beyond the classroom," she said.

Robin McGregor's daughter, Alex, who graduated this past spring from Waterford Kettering, was supposed to be part of the tour in March from Kettering's CSI, or crime scene investigation, class. She didn't end up going because she was out of state picking up a scholarship.

"From a parent's perspective, if that was my child, I'd be upset," said McGregor, the former president of the PTA, which did later discuss the incident with its members so parents were aware of it. "But my daughter wants to be a doctor so she'll have to see stuff like this. The kids have learned a lot of good things from seeing these autopsies in the past."

Zehnder said he's gotten complaints from roughly a dozen teachers, disappointed the tours have been discontinued.

"It is a shame, but it was a decision that was made and we have no plans to change it," he said.

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