Main Street News

Stissing Mountain Mock Trial Program Fosters Interpersonal Communication Skills

By Published On: May 17th, 2024

The mock trial program at Stissing Mountain High School in Pine Plains, NY has been in existence since 2004, when John Schoonmaker started teaching in the district.  

Schoonmaker, who teaches AP European History, Government, and Economics, and Ryan Orton, who teaches seventh grade history, serve as the co-advisors for mock trial. Also involved in mock trial is Sarah Jones, a former trial attorney. Sarah serves as the attorney coach and works with the students regarding the law. 

“She volunteers and comes in three times per week. She works with the kids as we progress and puts more work into this than anybody else. She’ll meet with students individually and respond to emails at all hours of the night – she is the most valuable person in this program without a doubt,” Schoonmaker said. 

How does mock trial work? 

Each year, the State Bar Association publishes a trial for students to use. Students have the option of acting as an attorney or a witness. Schoonmaker said that many students start out as witnesses and work their way up to serving as an attorney. 

“There’s a lot of work involved to be good at it. It’s probably one of the more challenging programs to be involved in after school because you’re required to not only memorize, but to critically think and act on your feet,” Schoonmaker explained. “Once you’re on trial, you can’t ask for help or take a timeout, you have to be able to adapt.” 

He also said that participating in trials requires students to learn a lot about etiquette and professionalism. Mock trial is also beneficial for students who want to get better at public speaking and giving presentations. 

“It tends to attract all types of students from different backgrounds. It’s not just kids who want to go to law school. I have students who want to go to college for theater, psychology, and business, too.”

The Stissing Mountain Mock Trial Team

Stissing Mountain has participated in the Dutchess County Mock Trial competition for 20 years and for eight of those years, they have won the county championship title. 

Following the pandemic, the Dutchess County Bar Association decided to break away from the State Bar Association and host their own competition with older cases. The students at Stissing Mountain were disappointed with this, as it meant that they would not have the opportunity to progress on to the regional or state level competitions. 

The students asked Schoonmaker if there was a way that they would be able to advance onto the regional level, so he did some asking around and got them to compete in the Columbia-Greene County bracket. After they won at that level, they were able to move on and compete in regionals on April 27. 

“After winning county, they participated against six of the best teams in the region at the Federal Courthouse in Albany. They ended up losing in the semi-final round, but for them to have that experience and be able to compete in a federal courthouse was incredibly valuable for them.” 

After advising the mock trial team for nearly 20 years, Schoonmaker has seen the program change and grow in many ways. 

“It’s been a little harder to get the kids motivated since the pandemic. I’ve noticed that I’ve had to push them more than I have had to do with others in the past, but once they get into it, the quality, professionalism, and how much they enjoy it and progress has remained the same,” Schoonmaker said. 

He also shared that, on multiple occasions, judges have commented that the students from the mock trial team are better than actual attorneys. “Our students often get very high compliments about how well prepared, how professional, and how well they conduct themselves,” he said. 

Schoonmaker is also particularly proud of this group because they participated in mock trial through the pandemic, which of course, presented significant challenges. Everything was online, including the trial itself, which meant that for two years, they missed out on the in-person courthouse experience. 

“For these kids who have been through the program and spent most of their time online, to be able to get them into the federal courthouse and seeing their eyes get wide when they walked into the courtroom was an experience that they might not appreciate right now, but definitely will later on.” 

He’s also an advocate for students to start participating in mock trial in the ninth grade. “Not a lot of schools offer this program. This is something that they can put on the top of their resume that will make them stand out when it comes time to do college admissions.”

Members of the team 

Max Heggenstaller is a senior at Stissing Mountain and has been a member of the mock trial team for all four years of high school. He initially joined the team because he found himself with a lot of free time during the pandemic and wanted to find a way to fill it with activities that were both socially and intellectually stimulating. 

“Although I now don’t have the same free time that I did during the pandemic, I suppose I stuck with the program because it makes you a better thinker, which is applicable to most other hobbies and interests,” Max said. “Besides learning courtroom procedures and tactics, I also improved my ability to work with team members and read a text not only by what it contains, but by what it does not.”

After his experience with the mock trial team, Max is considering a pre-law track in college. 

Leandra Costa, also a senior, has been a part of the mock trial team since she was a freshman. 

“For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in law and how the legal system works, so as soon as I entered high school, I jumped at the opportunity to join this club,” she said. “I have learned how to trust my instincts and abilities. When I deliver opening statements, direct, or cross-examinations, it is imperative to trust what I know. Oftentimes, as a lawyer, I remind myself to ‘fake it ‘til I make it.’ This means that when I am unsure of how to argue a point, I always say it with confidence and conviction, as sometimes this is enough to convince a judge to side with me.”

Leandra also shared that for a long time, she doubted her capability of becoming a lawyer and handling the pressure, but being on the mock trial team has allowed her to have a taste of what being a real trial lawyer is like. 

“Now that I have familiarized myself with it, I know I am capable of understanding legal discourse and applying skills that will be useful in the courtroom and all other aspects of my life,” she said. “The intensity of preparing for mock trials, objecting and pivoting, and the thrill of presenting my case in front of a judge are where I learned about my passion for law. The most valuable lesson I have learned from mock trial is that there is always another way to view, structure, and present my arguments. Most importantly, Ms. Jones, our legal expert and advisor, has provided us with indispensable guidance, leadership, and coaching, which I attribute to our success as a team.”

To learn more about the mock trial program at Stissing Mountain High School, visit the PPCSD website.