It may not resemble an episode of "Law & Order," but students from Sauvie Island School got some practical experience earlier this month presenting a case in front of a judge.
A mock trial was held June 3 at the Columbia County Courthouse, in front of Circuit Court Judge Michael Clarke.
The mock trial program is based on materials from the Classroom Law Project organization, according to Matt Radich, who teaches social studies to sixth- through eighth-graders at Sauvie Island School, a public charter school affiliated with the Scappoose School District.
"We adapt their high school-level materials to be accessible to our eighth-grade students," Radich said.
At Sauvie Island School, the mock trial program is a full-class project, not an elective or club. That's a key difference from most high school mock trial programs, since all students have to participate and learn from the experience.
"We are able to make enough roles so that everyone in the class can play a part in the culminating trial, as well as play an important role behind the scenes preparing as a team," Radich said, noting that he has run the program as a short unit in his social studies class for the past eight years.
At the Columbia County Courthouse in St. Helens, the mock trials have been held in front of Judge Jenefer Grant and, more recently, Clarke.
This year, only 18 students participated in the trial itself, due to some unforeseen absences.
The mock trial involves civil, not criminal cases. Part of the reason is the burden of proof in each type of trial.
"So far, we have only done civil cases in our eight years," Radich said. "I'd like to try a criminal case sometimes, but I find that the burden of proof in civil cases, preponderance of the evidence — or essentially 51 percent believable versus 49 percent — leads to a more suspenseful and uncertain trial outcome, as the students and jurors are usually pretty close in their decision-making, one way or the other, in whose side judgment will go for or against."
Presided over this year by Judge Clarke, a jury was made up of parent volunteers.
"The students 'perform' the trial, which is really cool because it's the first time they fully run through the trial," Radich said.
"As we work toward the trial, each team, plaintiff and defense, only prepare and rehearse with their witnesses and team, so they have no idea what theory of the case the opposing side might take," he added.
The mock trial wraps up with feedback from jurors and audience members.
Radich said the nature of this year's case was about a teenager who was fired from a job at a local burger establishment. The ex-employee then filed a complaint alleging whistleblower retaliation.
Sauvie Island School is pleased with the cooperation of the Columbia County Circuit Court in the mock trial program.
"We feel really lucky to have the courthouse staff and judges as community partners over the years," Radich said.
Asked if any of his students are inspired to get into a law career, Radich answered, "Yes. Several students have expressed interest in potentially pursuing careers in law. Judge Clarke was gracious with his time and discussed many types of law, the process of going to law school and other aspects of jobs in the legal system."
Radich enjoys the role of teaching students about how trials work.
"Yes, I enjoy this unit very much," he said. 'It's become a bit of an end-of-year, end-of-their-time-at-Sauvie tradition and is often something students tell me years later they remember as a highlight of middle school."
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