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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest High’s mock trial program develops students’ life skills

Nov 06, 2018 03:10PM ● By Jana Klopsch

At club rush week, Hillcrest High senior Ashley Howell recruits students for the mock trial team. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

At Alta View Elementary School, Ashley Howell was enrolled in the then accelerated learning program, but admits, “I was kind of quiet and shy.”

Howell said it was Midvale Middle School’s mock trial program that helped get her out of her shell and provide her a solid foundation.

“Mock trial has helped me develop interpersonal skills, be able to work with others, be able to communicate with others, develop what I want to say, read expressions, develop critical thinking and be able to improvise on the spot,” she said. “Besides, it’s a lot of fun.” 

Her former middle school adviser, Christiana Forbush, isn’t surprised that now Howell is president of the Hillcrest High School mock trial team as a high school senior.

“Ashley has always been a leader and a friend to everyone around her,” she said. “Within a few weeks of her starting mock trial in Midvale Middle School, she showed a knack for having wonderful presentation skills and helping to elevate the other people around her. She is always willing to help other people. During competition, she keeps her cool and is able to think on her feet. She is also a lot of fun.”

Mock trial allows students to take roles in presenting and defending a legal case in an actual courtroom in front of real lawyers or judges. Hillcrest students, usually divided into three or four teams of about eight students each, prepare cases for both the prosecution and defense as well as witnesses and bailiffs so when they enter the Scott Matheson Courthouse, they are ready for either side they’re told to role play.

“Mock trial is a really fun club that often has students who have interest in learning about the judicial system and how it works,” said David Veenstra, Hillcrest club new mock trial adviser. “It really opens up a new world to them and they’re able to understand the news, contracts and legal system better.”

While Veenstra said that some students want to pursue the legal field, others are there to make friends and learn skills.

“It helps them form arguments, research, sift through arguments and opinions to see points clearly, express themselves, look through bias and learn what is available in public records and what precedents were set in previous court cases,” he said. 

While Howell is pondering her career options — engineering, biology, law — she said learning public speaking skills from mock trial will help her in any of her future choices.

“Before seventh grade and mock trial, I didn’t like speaking in front of people,” she said. “Now, I’ve learned it’s not that bad. I kind of enjoy speaking in front of a large group. I have given a lot of opening statements and that has helped me become confident and know how to present myself and what I want to say.”

Howell said that mock trial differs from debate.

“With mock trial, we write the way we speak, so it relates to feelings. It’s not mechanical. It’s helped me to convey what I’m trying to say — and even write in a way that tugs at their heart strings,” she said. “And mock trial translates to every part of my life. With AP (advanced placement English) Language (Composition) class, I’m able to use rhetorical devises to manipulate my point of view. I know what to look for and translate it into what I want to write. Part of mock trial is to keep your table clean and organized, so that has even translated to keeping my school work organized and my room clean.”

Veenstra said he looks to the club leaders to guide the younger students.

“Ashley is a dominant force for our team. She’s the one out there at club rush, as a senior, recruiting and seeing the vision of the program. She wants the program to succeed with younger students after she graduates. She’s organizing everyone, making sure students understand and are involved, matching them with veteran students to practice,” he said.

Howell also is quick to point out that the mock trial’s success is because of the club’s leadership. Joining her as the club student leaders are junior Emily Zhang as vice president, junior Sophia Paradis as lawyer captain and senior Shreya Mahasenan as witness captain.

They, and other veteran team members, have been meeting with club members biweekly to help introduce mock trial skills to new students. They know that competition season is ahead. 

“We’ve been practicing with previous cases, teaching new students how to research,” Howell said. “The court cases may be similar to cases that have actually happened.”

Last year’s case was about a boy who failed to inform a summer camp that he was a diabetic and, as a result, he received severe injuries at camp, she said.

“We have to be able to prosecute or defend the case and each lawyer has a different set of questions and a different approach. I’m intense. I go right to the point,” she said.

Veenstra said that there will likely be four teams competing for Hillcrest. 

“Our first goal is to recruit so we have more than our active core of 16 last year,” he said. “Ashley already has recruited about 60 students during club rush, going to classes to speak about mock trial and putting up posters. She knows how to lead students. Our second goal is to win cases. We want to go all the way up to the top state rankings.”

Their schedule will be released in November, with their first mock trial case likely in December. Veenstra said that he is looking into meeting up with Howell’s middle school alma mater in early 2019 as a fun practice mock trial competition.

The points the team receives at the actual competitions around the state will accumulate, revealing the team’s ranking. With enough points, they may receive an invitation to the regional contest in April, held in Las Vegas.

“Sometimes, we can have two trials in a week. We just have to have all our facts ready and know the case,” Howell said. 

Veenstra doesn’t have to worry about his student leader.

“I came into this position and the leadership was already decided,” he said. “The right choice was made for Ashley to lead. In the court room, Ashley is the one who has the best grip of the way the judicial system operates not the way it should. She’s organized, gets everyone involved, steps up to coach others, and embraces it.”