LaGrange Highlands students take the law into their own hands
Philip Smith shows evidence to the jury while taking part in a mock trial at Highlands Middle School. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 7, 2013 12:40PM
LAGRANGE HIGHLANDS — The eighth-graders at LaGrange Highlands Middle School are still much too young to take the Illinois Bar Exam.
But a mock murder trial Feb. 27 tested students on their trial savvy when the 13- and 14-year-olds became attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses and jury members responsible for seeing that justice was served for a murdered literary character.
After reading Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville, a novel about a sailor accused of murdering a shipmate, the 25 students in Paula Florek’s advanced language arts class prepared for their own trial to determine if Billy Bud should have been found guilty of killing John Claggart.
The cafeteria and library were turned into court rooms, and students dressed up as lawyers and prosecutors; cross-examining witnesses, presenting evidence to the court, and arguing their cases to a jury of classmates who would ultimately decide the fate of the defendant.
Student Matthew Brandt dressed the part of a prosecutor, wearing a sharp suit and trendy black-rimmed eyeglasses. Brandt’s classmate, Haylee Donovan, looked every bit the part of an attorney, dressed to the nines for the court.
In the end, one jury came out hung and the other found Billy Bud guilty of manslaughter.
But the lesson went much deeper than simply finding a verdict, said Florek, who spent two weeks helping prepare her class for the trial.
Seven attorneys volunteered to come in and teach the students about the law and proper court etiquette.
“The attorneys came in an explained the process of a trial and presented a power point on a real-life murder case that showed victim photos that were presented in a real courtroom,” Florek said. “The kids were able to ask them lots of questions, and it turned out to be a very helpful lesson.”
Outside the advanced language arts class, the rest of the eighth graders were able to take part by participating in the jury pool.
Being on the jury and hearing the case was a way for them to apply their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, which is being studied by all the eighth-graders, Florek said.
Carmen Aguilar, a Bridgeview judge who served as the judge of the mock trial, was impressed.
“Only seasoned attorneys are able to deliver closing arguments that well,” Aguilar said.
Florek said the biggest challenge for students was understanding and interpreting Illinois laws that were applied to the case.
“The goal was to teach critical thinking skills and get (the students) to think on their feet,” Florek said. “They worked really hard and succeeded in what they were trying to do. I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out.”