In the News

Students take on courtroom roles in mock trial competition

Thursday, January 14, 2010
By Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Although acting skills are sometimes needed, Shannon Gallagher says participating in a mock trial is not the same as appearing in a play.

“The whole script isn’t written out,” she said. “You have to be able to improvise and to use your wits.”

A senior at Butler Area High School, Shannon is taking part in the statewide mock trial competition for the third time.

Butler Area is one of 287 schools taking part in the annual competition sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. The academic competition is in its 27th year.

Shannon and other students already have spent hours researching cases, writing presentations, rearranging lists of questions and polishing their delivery.

They also have to be ready for the unexpected when they go up against squads from other schools. “Each trial is unique and you have to be ready to think on your feet,” she said.

Heather Nyapas, who coaches the Woodland Hills High School team, sees at least two benefits for participating students.

“They learn a lot about the legal system,” she said. “Quite a few kids who are usually shy really come out of their shells when they make their opening and closing statements.”

Competition on the district and regional levels will begin Jan. 25 and continue through the end of March. The 12 best teams in the state will face off March 26 and 27 in Harrisburg.

The winner of that competition will represent Pennsylvania in a national mock trial competition in Philadelphia.

Teams of eight to 10 members, plus optional alternates, must prepare to argue both sides of a legal case. Team members, playing the roles of lawyers and witnesses, present their cases before actual judges. They are advised by practicing attorneys, while other lawyers and community leaders serve as jurors. The trials usually take place in real courtrooms.

Mock trial competition is one of the most anticipated academic contests of the school year, Johnstown lawyer Timothy Burns said. He is chairman of the bar association’s young lawyers division. Students gain “working knowledge about our justice system, successful dispute resolution techniques as well as valuable presentation and critical thinking skills,” he said.

Richard Stanczak, a retired teacher, coaches the Woodland Hills team with Mrs. Nyapas. Their attorney adviser is Jamie Glasser, who is aided by lawyer Lena Henderson.

The season at Woodland Hills began with tryouts in November. Prospective team members first attended training sessions, then they prepared opening statements based on a court case used in a previous competition.

The teams began practicing after school up to three times each week. As the date for the first district and regional contests gets closer, many squads also get together on Saturdays for additional preparation.

“It is somewhat like casting a play,” Mrs. Nyapas said. “You try to decide who would be best as one of the lawyers and who would be most effective as a witness.”

Preparation and practice has paid off. Woodland Hills was Allegheny County champion and placed third in the state competition last year, she said.

Sounding a little bit like an athletic coach, Mrs. Nyapas mourned the loss of last year’s many graduating seniors. “We have a young team this year,” she said.

The courtroom atmosphere should feel familiar to members of the mock trial team at New Brighton Area Senior High School when they present their cases.

The team practices in a replica of a court room at the high school. It was completed in May of last year after three years of planning and construction.

“The New Brighton school board deserves applause for their actions,” said David Hartung, coach of the district’s team. “They took an empty room and had it remodeled for an academic activity.”

The room isn’t used only for mock trial practice, he said. The school’s courtroom also is home to constitutional law and social studies classes.

Like Mr. Stanczak at Woodland Hills, Mr. Hartung is a retired teacher who stays active with his school’s mock trial team.

Each year, some team members consider careers in law, Mr. Hartung said. “But most of them enjoy mock trial as an academic activity where they have a chance to compete against kids from other schools.”

“They are presenting their cases in a Beaver County courtroom before [President] Judge [John] McBride and 12 adult attorneys,” Mr. Hartung said. “You don’t get an experience like that too often when you are in high school.”

Butler Area teacher John Lesjack knows what that experience is like. Now the coach of his school’s mock trial team, Mr. Lesjack was a member of Seneca Valley’s team when he was in high school.

“Mock trial helps kids develop their public presentation and writing skills,” he said. “Those are two of the most important things you can learn in high school.”

“We get students who want to be lawyers, but also those who want to be business people,” he said. “They learn critical thinking and how to organize an argument — skills they can apply in other classes and for the rest of their lives.”

Students from McKeesport Area High School will compete in interscholastic mock trial for the first time this winter.

“We’ve been doing a mock trial in school for the past several years,” Mc-Keesport coach Kim Rose said. “The kids really liked it, and they said they wanted to try competing against teams from other school districts.”

Her students will meet Wednesday and Jan. 25 with lawyer David Tkacik to prepare for their first contest, scheduled for Feb. 2 in the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Ms. Rose teaches business law and entrepreneurship, and most of her students plan to pursue careers in those fields. “Some are interested in becoming police officers or attorneys, and these kinds of activities give them a chance to see what those jobs would be like,” she said.

If Shannon decides to become a lawyer, she will be following in the footsteps of her father, Michael Gallagher.

“Mock trial is my favorite activity,” she said. “It requires logic, but the cases also leave lots of room for interpretation. It makes me think.”

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