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March 29, 2011 > Mock trial demystifies law

Mock trial demystifies law

By Julie Grabowski

"Super academic... super competitive... super fun"

That's how American High coach Sarah Hylas describes the world of mock trial. Created by the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), the Mock Trial program puts students in courtroom roles to help them understand our judicial system, and develop skills in analysis, communication, and critical thinking. Each year, cases are created based on important issues facing today's youth. Students study the case and prepare strategies and arguments for mock trial competitions at the county level. Alameda County finals are held in February; state finals follow in March. In May, state winners attend the National High School Mock Trial Championship, held this year in Phoenix.

The opportunity to form a mock trial team came to Fremont's American High School when World History and Geography teacher Hylas was approached by Principal Ron Leone. He had been involved in mock trials as a teacher and believed that an academic competitive team would build pride in the school. Following Leone's retirement in 2010, Hylas continued to develop the idea, finding attorney coaches and interested students.

Mock trial begins the first week of school and continues through the end of February, meeting six hours a week. Interested students must audition for a position on the team; they are given facts of a situation and write-up of a case for which they must create an opening statement. Hylas and teacher/coach Melanie Sheaffer judge and select the team, looking for cogent analysis of the case and a confident demeanor. Sixty-four students auditioned this year and 22 were selected.

Students must sign a six page contract, underscoring the commitment necessary to participate. Hylas does her best to accommodate student participant schedules, but competitions are held during January and February so students must be available to devote those months to the team. American High School students who qualified and selected include: Sneha Banjeree, Dashiel Barrett, Hinnah Daryani, Roberta Dousa, Samantha Freeman, Robby Gill, Theresa Gupta, Priya Gupta, Rosemond Ho, Aditya Joshi, Anusha Kothare, Stanford Liew, Alan Lin, Varshini Parthasarathy, Rajiv Samagond, Albert Sung, Sanjna Thaker, Alysia Thind, Brian Weikel, Zachary Wentworth, and Luke Zhang.

The group is a diverse mix of grade levels, personalities, and nationalities; eight seniors and two juniors are on the team, the remainder sophomores and freshmen. And every member counts; there is no second string. "Everybody has to be interchangeable and to understand the case," says Hylas.

While a thorough study of case material is essential, students must be able to think on their feet. "You need to be part actor and an incredible critical thinker at the same time," Hylas says. To address that need, the team has worked with an acting coach, learning about pitch, voice, eye contact, and team building.

Hylas and teacher coach Sheaffer rely on the expertise of three attorney coaches: Deputy District Attorney Christy Bowles, Alameda County; Roberto Gonzales, civil attorney in Salinas; and Katie Porter, JD who is the mother of an American High junior. Gonzales prepares the pre-trial attorneys, and Bowles works on theory of crime.

Students studied a 65-page case booklet for "People vs. Woodson," a two-count case involving assault with a deadly weapon, and cyber-bullying. Assuming the roles of pre-trial attorneys, attorneys, witnesses, clerk, and bailiff, they travelled to Superior Court chambers in Oakland for two practice rounds followed by six competition rounds, arguing before actual judges and attorneys.

Twelve other schools in Alameda County participate in mock trial including Circle of Independent Learning Charter School (COIL) in Fremont, San Lorenzo High, KIPP King Collegiate High School in San Lorenzo, East Bay Arts in San Leandro, and Skyline High and Bishop O'Dowd in Oakland. In their first experience last year, American placed fifth; this year the team placed second in finals competition with Oakland's Piedmont High School on February 17. To improve so dramatically in one year is an impressive feat. "In the world of mock trial their name is now infamous," says Hylas. And not only are they known for their competitive skills, but have also garnered a reputation as the "nice team."

"They're gracious winners, they're gracious losers," Hylas says. And to further cement that standing, the American team agreed to help Piedmont prepare for state competition.

Participation in mock trial, however, comes with a hefty price tag. It costs $1,875 to compete in the county competition, and students racked up $700 in BART tickets commuting between Fremont and Oakland, $300 for clothes suitable for court, not to mention a lot of Subway sandwiches and pizza at practices. It costs $10,000 to attend the three-day finals in Riverside, California.

Students raised $1,700 through efforts such as a team bonding night at Sweet Tomatoes where they received a percentage of profits, and a "10-10-10" campaign, where you ask 10 people to give you $10 in 10 days. Hylas contributed $500 with the help of family and friends. "We're figuring out how to fundraise," she says. "Clubs get fundraising weeks, but we're not a club. Sports teams get Boosters, but we're not a sports team. Either way, the fees are high for mock trial so selling donuts in the rotunda wouldn't really do it. We were lucky enough to receive a scholarship this year from Alameda County."

Currently in her third year at American, Hylas always wanted to go to law school, but fell in love with history and teaching. She says that mock trial is the "best case scenario" because it meets all of her goals - getting courtroom experience, working with attorneys, and meeting with judges. "It's the best part of my job that I don't get paid for," she laughs. "But the rewards are tenfold."

Even though half of the team is involved in other competitive activities, Hylas says she doesn't have to worry about keeping them on track; super competitive with an aim to win, they take Mock Trial very seriously, policing, supporting and encouraging each other. The experience creates a tight bond and the kids become like family. "Their getting more out of it than just academics," says Hylas.

Student personal growth is evident exhibited by enhanced confidence, self-esteem and critical thinking opening doors to the future. The number of students interested in attending law school has increased and team captain Dashiel Barrett was offered a summer internship in the Alameda County DA's office. But whatever the benefits, one thing is certain says Hylas, "It really is a great, fun experience."

The team is always looking for help from attorneys; Hylas says a defense trial attorney would be a great addition to the advisory group. Monetary donations would be also be welcome as well as clothes - shoes, suits, and dress shirts - suitable for court appearances. Those who would like to help can contact Sarah Hylas at shylas@fremont.k12.ca.us.

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