BRIGANTINE — Sixth-graders in the Brigantine Public School District have been honing a distinguished reputation in an annual mock trial competition hosted by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation.
The students are part of teacher Rita Coyne's gifted and talented program that recognizes not only exceptional classroom performance but varied interests and aspirations.
Since first getting involved about a decade ago in the foundation's Mock Trial Program — which dates to 1982 and is designed to educate students, from third grade through high school, about the American justice system — Brigantine has won the sixth-grade level of competition seven times.
Once a school is notified of having won its division, it is invited to present its case at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Brigantine will perform its mock trial on Wednesday morning, May 23, in front of attorney and foundation trustee John Gillick. Runner-up and third-place schools in each division are invited to participate as mock jurors.
In late March, Sheila Boro, director of the mock-trial program, informed Coyne that her team had won its seventh Law Fair competition in the sixth-grade division. The Law Fair (grades 3-6) and Law Adventure (7-8) competitions involve students writing and scripting fictitious cases, or creating the whole idea and dispute. The flagship competition, the Vincent J. Apruzzese High School Mock Trial, involves the foundation providing the students with a legal case that they act out and debate as attorneys, witnesses, judges and jurors.
“Sixth-graders have to create a case — create the plaintiff, the defendant and some type of dispute between them that's believable for a sixth-grade student,” said Coyne, a 20-year teacher in the district. “We create both sides of the case and come up with two witnesses for each side as well. We're not talking something like insurance fraud because that would not be something most sixth-graders could identify with.”
The subject matter the Brigantine students focused on during this year's winning campaign was athletes kneeling down during the national anthem, a firestorm of controversy sparked by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the 2016-'17 football season. They named their case “Stars, Stripes and Suspension.”
“We based the case on a fictional student and football player who decided to take a knee for the national anthem during the homecoming game,” Coyne said. “The dispute was that the school became offended, feeling that it disrupted the educational process when the students came back to school after the game. And of course the student's point-of-view was that it was his constitutional right to express himself.”
As well as learning about the legal system, Coyne allows her students to have some fun with the whole creativity process.
“When the Eagles won the Super Bowl (on Feb. 4), of course we had to include a bunch of Eagles' references throughout the case to have fun with it,” she said. “And we like to show a little creative writing by sprinking pun names throughout the production, so our plaintiff's name, the student who took the knee, is named Neal A. Lott. His father, with whom he has a very close relationship, is a wise person who had had his own run-ins with authority over the years, and saw the son as doing this as a show of support. We named the father Noah Lott.”
Coyne said that teaching the concept of puns and word play to sixth graders is an interesting process in itself.
“The defense side of the case is the Board of Education, and the chief defendant is the principal of the school — a very patriotic former war veteran we named Sal Lute.”
Brigantine was competing against more than 80 other schools statewide. The winners of the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade mock-trial divisions were all from the northern part of the state — Westfield, Nutley and Paramus, respectively — and the second-place team behind Brigantine in the sixth-grade division was the Luis Munoz Marin School for Social Justice of Newark.
“We're up against a lot of northern New Jersey schools whose kids, in many cases, have parents working as professionals in downtown Manhattan,” Coyne said. “There's a very high level of socioeconomic status in some of those areas, so to be competing against these high-rolling districts and doing well I think says a lot for our programs and curriculums.”
Coyne said winning for the first time in 2010 sort of served as a template for how to go about structuring future mock trials.
“We kind of got on a roll after our first win,” she said. “Once you get the hang of what (contest judges) are looking for and the process, then you have a prior year to use as a model for the kids, which helps. And they really present it well. In fact, the first year we presented, the judge in the mock trial was an actually sitting judge who complimented us on how well prepared we were, noticing the voice inflection and the energy the kids put into it. He said it was hard to believe that these were only sixth-grade students.”
The Brigantine students are now in the process of “prepping for trial,” as Coyne calls it, for their May 23 appearance in New Brunswick — writing an opening statement for the plaintiff, another for the defendant, questions and answers for direct and cross examinations, and closing statements for both sides.
“That's the tough part of the whole procedure, and of course I always insist that they memorize everything,” Coyne said. “They always want to take their notes in, but I keep telling them that they don't see lawyers taking notes out before a jury.”
As rigorous and time consuming as it can be, Coyne said, she savors the entire process.
“I love teaching this class, it's so much fun,” she said. “You're teaching them something that they can truly use later in their lives, because they'll all probably be called up for jury duty at some point, and it's great that they have this background and can understand what the process is.
“Finding timely news items for these trials also helps me teach current events, social studies, and give kids a little historical perspective,” she said. “You try to cut across as many areas of the curriculum as you can. This can be a rough age for many middle schoolers — going through puberty, being unsure of themselves, the cliques that tend to form — and this helps give them a sense of coming into their own, a feeling of success.”
It has also helped shaped the future of many of the students in ways that manifest themselves later.
“I've had students come back to me after graduating from high school and tell me they wanted to major in pre-law in college because of their experience in mock trial,” Coyne said. “And that's just the greatest feeling there is — making such an impression on a student that you affect their career choice, or even just whetting their appetite for the law in some way.”