Dressed in their best business clothes, eighth-graders from Stephanie Trott’s U.S. History class at Redwood Middle School stepped up to the podium this week to argue two court cases in Supreme Court-style mock trials.
One case was chosen to hit close to home.
Student Eden Wood was one of the “attorneys” representing a student whose cell phone was taken away after he was caught texting in class. The student was suing the school district because the principal had read four text messages after seizing the phone in addition to expelling him.
The Redwood Middle School students have been learning about the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The mock trial was the final piece of the puzzle. The students first had to learn about the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, read examples of real court cases, apply for jobs and pass the “bar exam.” Students were able to be attorneys, paralegals and court justices.
Trott brought in four local attorneys and pro tem judges to act as the chief justices. Donning a tan outfit and gold badge, he acted as the bailiff.
Napa-based attorney Joseph Solga was the designated chief justice.
As each student presented, Solga and other student justices questioned them, causing anxiety to some unsuspecting presenters.
“They’re telling war stories about it,” Trott said afterward. “They’ve all said it was really nerve-wracking and challenging but they enjoyed it.”
Wood argued that although the student with the cell phone had violated a school rule, administrators didn’t need to read his text messages in order to prove it.
“He was caught using his cell phone,” she said. The principal’s reading of the text messages was unnecessary and embarrassing to the student.
“Are you saying that his violation of privacy was wrong because of the amendment or because of his feelings?” inquired Andre Oliveira, one of the student justices.
Wood cited the 4th Amendment which offers protection against unreasonable searches.
The case, which Trott dubbed “Tuscana Public Schools v. R.P.,” was based on an actual court case – G.C. v. Owensboro Public Schools – heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati.
Trott disguised the true name of this case and its outcome. “I didn’t want them going out there and learning what the actual opinions or outcomes were,” she said. She wanted the students to come up with their own arguments.
After students representing both sides had presented their cases, they left the room while the justices discussed the evidence. When they came back in, each justice held up a white board with their ruling.
In the case of “Tuscana Public Schools v. R.P.,” the justices ruled 7-2 in favor of the school. In the actual federal case, the aggrieved student won.
“The fact that he (the student) had been caught using his phone in the first place … warranted some search,” Oliveira said, explaining the court’s decision.
Afterward, Oliveira said that the facts of the case kept him engaged.
As a justice, he said, he tried to find holes in each person’s argument. Although he had prepared questions ahead of time, many of them he thought of in the moment, he said.
“It’s interesting to see how quickly your opinion can sway,” he said.
Solga said that he was impressed with the students.
“It’s really hard to get up and speak in front of people” and risk getting embarrassed, he told the students. He recommended that they learn not to read from their notes while they’re talking to people.
“Force yourself never to talk to people while you’re reading your notes – don’t be afraid of silence,” he said.
Having professionals like Solga come in and participate in the project really helped “raise the bar” for students, Trott said.
By doing this project, students not only learned about the Bill of Rights, but they also learned how to present in a professional setting, Trott said.
“One student pointed out that these cases aren’t about whether or not you’re good or bad … but whether or not a violation of rights occurred,” she said. Trott said she hopes the students come away from this understanding knowing what their rights are and knowing how to stand up for themselves.
Mock trials aren’t anything new, but Trott said that she thinks they really helps students get engaged with what they’re learning. It’s “absolutely” better than just having them read a section in a textbook, she said.
“If you can convince them that learning is fun,” Trott said, “then your job as a teacher gets a lot easier.”