Nordonia Hills -- A group of Nordonia High School students is getting a taste of what it is like to be an attorney -- and challenging students from other schools in the process.
Ten students, four on a senior team, and six on a junior team, are taking part in this year's Mock Trial program, which requires high school students to argue hypothetical court cases in a series of upcoming competitions that could go all the way up to a national tournament.
But this year's senior team has already achieved some successes. Social studies and history teacher Amanda Ferrell, who is serving as team advisor, said the team took first place among 24 teams in an invitational competition at the University of Cincinnati Jan. 12.
"They did very well. I was very proud of them," she said.
"It is a separate competition, to see how teams measure up," said attorney Farhad Sethna, who serves as the team's legal advisor.
And Sethna said the team also took part in a "scrimmage" against Stow Municipal Court Jan. 24.
"In a scrimmage, we're just going up in a practice round against other teams that are taking part in the competition," he said.
That competition will begin with a district event Feb. 1 and a regional event Feb. 22, both at Akron Municipal Court, followed by the state event in Columbus March 7 to 9 and a national event in Indianapolis May 30. Sethna said that despite the team's success so far, it is difficult to predict how well it will do.
"It really depends on the teams we come up against and the judges we draw," he said.
Ohio's Mock Trial program is sponsored by the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education, which in turn is sponsored by the Ohio Supreme Court, the state attorney general's office, American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation, and the Ohio Bar Association.
Sethna said teams are given the same hypothetical trial situation. This year's scenario is a suppression hearing in which the defense argues that a confession from a girl accused of arson was improperly attained and should not be included in the trial.
Teams from different schools are paired up with each other in competion, with members of one team acting as prosecutor and prosecution witnesses and the other as the defense attorney and defense witnesses. They then switch places for a second round. Sethna said the whole process can take as long as three hours, including opening statements, testimony and closing arguments, but teams are given time limits for presenting their cases.
"It's a very intellectually challenging endeavor," he said.
"Really, the devil is in how you present it," Sethna added. "It's incredibly complex."
Teams must have a minimum of four members. Senior teams tend to have more experienced members, with three seniors on this year's Nordonia team, co-captains John Bailey Smith, who writes all of the team's materials, and Allyson Carpenter, along with Alexandria Hudec. Smith and Hudec are in their fourth year taking part in the program and Carpenter and sophomore Kate Fike are in their second years. Sethna said that because the team is small, its members have the additional challenge of having to pull "double duty," having to be proficient both as defense attorney and prosecutor, for example.
The junior team is entirely freshmen and sophomores and is more of a training ground.
"They're learning a lot from the senior team," said Ferrell.
Although an obvious benefit of Mock Trial might be giving budding attorneys an opportunity of getting their feet wet, Carpenter, who plans a career in journalism, said that it has more general advantages that any student could benefit from.
"It's teaching me to be a better orator and a better writer," she said. "It's also helped me to learn to think on my feet."
"I think it gives them public speaking skills, as well as confidence and team building skills," said Ferrell.
Ferrell is in her first year as team advisor, as well as her first year with the district. The teams began meeting for twice-weekly after-school practices in September.
"It was an open position when I came on in August and I thought it was a great way to get involved with the students," she said.
Although Mock Trial rules require teams to have a teacher advisor, legal advisors are optional.
"It's not mandatory," said Sethna. "I would say the chances are better if teams have a legal advisor."
It is an advantage that Nordonoa's teams have had for a long time, with Sethna in his eighth year in the role.
"My son Cyrus was a freshman and wanted to join the Mock Trial team and he asked me to be legal advisor since I'm an attorney," said Sethna.