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Somebody cheated on standardized tests at a top Connecticut school. And it wasn't the students.

The Connecticut State Police headquarters straddles a low hill just outside the city limits of Meriden, about 25 miles south of Hartford. The site used to be a boys' reform school, and most of its dozen or so buildings are old, stone war horses that wheeze with age. But at one end of the compound stands a low-slung structure, its spanking new brick capped with a shiny green metal roof. Here, in quiet, cool rooms often lit only by the glow of computer monitors, roughly 30 scientists, technicians, ex-cops, and other forensic experts assigned to the state's crime lab pore over evidence from murders, sexual assaults, fraud, robberies, and the like. Many of these sleuths hold advanced degrees--even Ph.D.s--in forensics or more pedestrian sciences like chemistry. They read magazines like Microscopy Today, and their shoptalk is laced with jargon and acronyms--ESDA, VSC-1, and FTIR--that make even the most grisly murder seem routine, another day at the office.

Framed and hanging on a wall just past the building's reception area and a card-key entry are clippings that tell the story of the "Woodchipper Murder," a case from the late 1980s in which a husband killed his wife and stuffed her body through a woodchipper. It was the first time in Connecticut that prosecutors put someone on trial for murder without a body to back up their charge, but Henry Lee, the lab's director, found the proof needed to convict, matching nail polish from a severed finger to a brand found in the dead woman's bedroom. Since then, Lee has free-lanced his services in a number of high-profile cases--most recently, the investigation of White House aide Vincent Foster's suicide. In the process, he's become one of the country's best-known crime busters. Fans of the Court TV network will probably remember that he took the stand as a star witness for the O.J. Simpson defense team last year and smacked his hand repeatedly in red paint in a dramatic demonstration of how blood splatters.

It is Lee and his crack team that school officials in Fairfield, Connecticut, have turned to for help in solving a mystery of their own. It all began last winter when district officials noticed a suspiciously high number of erasures on students' standardized tests. By spring, the publisher of the test had concluded that someone--or more than one person--had tampered with the answer sheets turned in by Stratfield School, one of Fairfield's nine elementary schools. By summer, the school board of this 7,000-student district had assembled a team to investigate the tampering that included Lee's crime lab, a retired judge, a nationally known testing expert, and a firm of private investigators headed by an ex-FBI agent.

Didn't happen, they said when the scandal broke. Couldn't have. If you're going to accuse such fine educators of cheating, better back it up with rock-solid evidence.

But not everyone in Fairfield is thrilled to see school officials spending taxpayer money on a manhunt. Stratfield is the district's flagship--it has twice won the federal blue ribbon award for excellence, and Redbook magazine in 1993 named it one of the best elementary schools in the country. The school's principal, Roger Previs, is also something of a local hero, having steered the school to such dizzying heights while dazzling parents with his commitment, warmth, and integrity. Parents say Previs' staff is devoted to him and to their students. To suggest that they would cheat, that the children's scores were cooked, that the school's accolades were a fraud--well, that's out of the question. Didn't happen, they said when the scandal broke. Couldn't have. If you're going to accuse such fine educators of cheating, better back it up with rock-solid evidence.

And that's exactly what the crime lab in Meriden is looking for. Before their investigation is complete, Lee and his staff will squint through high-powered microscopes for hour upon hour, combing for clues among the thousands of answer bubbles on the tests. They also will bombard the pages with electrons and ultraviolet rays, chemically bringing to light what the human eye can't see. And like any cop in the movies, they will dust for fingerprints. In the end, they hope to have the answer to the question that everyone in Fairfield is asking: Whodunit?

While modern-day crime stories are often told against a gritty, urban backdrop, the classics--especially Agatha Christie tales--are frequently set in quaint, seaside towns. Fairfield is not a quaint, seaside town, but it's about as close as you get within an easy commute of New York City. Tucked just south of the city of Bridgeport along the Long Island Sound, it boasts five beaches and a handful of marinas. With 55,000 residents, it is more a city than a town, but it has charms and community pride typical of an old New England hamlet. The town meeting still prevails as Fairfield's form of government, albeit in a condensed version, as 50 members of the community are elected every two years to represent their neighbors on civic matters. Independent businesses--Mike's Pizza and Gregory's Café and Bar--line the town's main drag, the Post Road, which is anchored by a white gazebo where families sit on warm summer nights and eat ice cream.

Fairfield is one of dozens of communities that orbit New York City from a distance of an hour or less by train and compete economically and psychologically. Westbury on Long Island, Westchester County in New York, Chatham in New Jersey--they're all nice places to live, but a good school system can tip the scales for young families looking to move. "You want it to be a nice town, but if the education system isn't too great, well, you're going to think twice about it," says Victor DeMaria, director of sales for Century 21 realtors in Fairfield. "It's the same across the United States. I get people from California, and the first question out of their mouth is: 'I need information about the schools.' "

And that's what DeMaria gives them. When asked about schools in a district, he types the client's name and address into his computer and punches a "send" button. Automatically, the information is relayed by fax to National School Reporting Services Inc. in nearby Stamford, Connecticut. Billing itself as an "education information service," the company culls school data from public sources in 15 states and packages the information, community by community, for realtors and their clients. Within a few days of receiving DeMaria's fax, it sends a school report to his client--complete with the district's average class sizes, SAT scores, and information about curriculum, programs, and educators' professional qualifications. "This is freedom of information," DeMaria says. "This is high technology. This is instant."

Luckily for DeMaria and other local realtors, schools in Fairfield have enjoyed an outstanding reputation for years, as far back as the 1950s. "Fairfield is traditionally known for quality education--period," contends Anthony Costa, director of teacher education at Fairfield University. A Fairfield native, Costa taught in the system for 13 years and for a time headed a local teachers' union. He left in the 1960s for a principal's job elsewhere in Connecticut but returned in 1970, became a professor at the university, and took over its student internship program in the Fairfield schools. He remembers that back then, talk in the Fairfield High School teachers' lounges was always about education. "In the positive sense. They never degraded kids," he says. "It was always positive, positive, positive. What can we do to make education better?"

At Stratfield Elementary, "anything other than excellence is unacceptable," wrote the school's committee in its application for a U.S. Department of Education national "Blue Ribbon School" award.

Although all of Fairfield's schools enjoy a good reputation, Stratfield has long been seen as the best. Lights burn at the school at all hours, and teachers in each grade meet weekly to discuss curriculum and swap ideas. Roger Previs, the principal, sets the standard. For 17 years, he has met the children as they arrive each morning and sat with them at lunch each day. Newcomers immediately sense that he offers caring leadership that puts the kids first and all else second, says Susan Brown, who runs a business that serves as a sort of welcome wagon to families. "You come into the school, and he's there," she says. "He's just always there."

Families moving to Fairfield are also wowed by the school's pile of awards. Stratfield's 480 students regularly win the right to represent Connecticut in national math, language arts, creative thinking, and other academic contests. The U.S. Department of Education first named Stratfield a national "Blue Ribbon School" in 1987; a second award followed in 1994, only a year after Redbook named it one of the best 177 elementary schools in the country. At Stratfield, "anything other than excellence is unacceptable," wrote the school's committee of parents, teachers, and staff in its application for the 1994 blue ribbon.

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