Court is in session in District 128
"Attorney," Shriui Gulati, (Center, standing) 16, asks questions of "Witness," Allie Knopoff, (Seated, right) 18, during Friday's mock trial in a law class at Vernon Hills High School. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 31, 2012 5:42PM
Students at Vernon Hills and Libertyville high schools don’t have to wait until college or law school to learn legal skills.
Law class has been a fixture in District 128 for at least 16 years now, said Libertyville High School government and law teacher Amy Holtsford.
At Vernon Hills High School, Eileen Orzoff-Baranyk has presided over the class for the last seven to eight years of her 12 years at the school. In that time, she has seen the popularity of the elective grow substantially.
“When I first started teaching the class, I had three students in it. Now there are about 23 to 25 students in each semester on average,” Orzoff-Baranyk said.
What’s covered in the class is fairly extensive. Students learn the basics of the U.S. legislative system and how all branches and levels of government are involved. They are also presented with the idea of citizen advocacy and how citizens can influence the passage of laws.
Tort law, criminal law and constitutional law are the main units of Orzoff-Baranyk’s class. This is also where things get fun and interactive as students participate in mock trials. The trials are serious business and take up to two weeks to prepare, argue and decide. Students represent both the plaintiff and defendant with some students playing the roles of attorneys while others serve as witnesses.
A theory of the case is developed. Case strategy is formulated. Opening and closing statements are discussed as well as direct and cross examination. Finally, a jury is formed from students in the law class and other VHHS students who have a free period during the time law class is held.
Then it comes time to “go to trial,” which usually takes several days. This is where the kids really get a taste of what it’s like to argue a case in court.
Orzoff-Baranyk said she is often blown away by the abilities of students she has in other classes she teaches like world history.
“Maybe they weren’t the strongest history student, but the minute they get up in front of a jury, they are magical,” she said. “There have been a few times where I was shocked that I was hearing a high school student in a mock trial and not a professional attorney.”
Not surprisingly, Orzoff-Baranyk said, mock trials are everyone’s favorite part of the class. She knows of several students who have gone on to join college mock trial teams and others have become lawyers. A student who recently contacted her on the professional networking website LinkedIn is a perfect example.
“I am actually contemplating going to law school,” he wrote to her. “My interest really stemmed from your class and I am currently enrolled in a business law course and I love it.”