The undefeated Toll Gate High School Mock Trial team aims to test their mettle on the national level, but first they need to raise $5,000.
On April 11, the team beat St. Mary’s Academy Bay View to win their third state championship title in four years. The school has won a total of four state championships in the past seven years.
Coached by Toll Gate social studies teacher Sharon Franco, the team is now trying to raise $5,000 to travel to Indianapolis, Ind. for the national championships. The cost covers registration fees, air travel and hotel accommodations.
Franco said that the team is open to any suggestions to raise money and to “any and all opportunities for funding.”
She says that the team would need to have raised at least $3,000 by Monday to book flights. As of Tuesday afternoon, they had $700.
The team would be in Indianapolis from May 8 to May 12 for three days of competition. If a team makes it to the final round during the weekend, they will have performed five trials in three days according to Franco.
“It is so inspiring and it demands so much reasoning and focus,” said Franco, who has been coaching the Toll Gate team for 11 years and teaching at Toll Gate for 12.
Franco said that the after-school activity requires students to study evidence and present reasonable arguments for a variety of cases.
“It’s really a great experience to understand what it is like to be a lawyer and to be in a courtroom,” said Madeleine Anthony, a senior who has been on the team for two years. “You have to make a strong case. You have to make your case presentable.”
This year, the Toll Gate team was undefeated and seeded first going into the State Championships. They won a total of six trials over the year and competed against teams from Portsmouth High School, Providence County Day and Barrington High School, to name a few.
“We always take it one trial at a time,” said Franco when asked about the team’s strategy.
Last year, Anthony said the team did not make it through the first round of the tournament, so ending this year as undefeated state champions with a chance to compete at nationals is an amazing opportunity.
“I am really excited,” said Anthony. “Mock trial has been such a good part of my high school experience and [going to nationals] is one of the last things I will get to do in high school.”
For the State Championship, the case tried by the students centered on a young driver charged with negligent and vehicular homicide following an accident that killed the defendant’s passenger and the other driver. Toll Gate represented the prosecution trying to convict the driver.
Some of the facts of the case included both drivers consuming alcohol before getting behind the wheel and the driver who was killed suffering from heart disease and a possible heart attack before the accident.
Franco said that if the team raises the money and attends nationals, they would be required to learn an entirely new case.
According to Anthony, the case for nationals is a civil case regarding an explosion at a movie theater.
“It will be different, but we are going to make the best of it,” she said.
During competition, students are lawyers and witnesses, and one teammate will be the rules expert. Franco explained that a rules expert is the official timekeeper and will go through a training process to understand court rules and objections.
“It is an academic exercise,” said Franco, who works with the students on cases both after school and on weekends. She said she stays in touch with the team through phone calls, e-mails and text messages, anything that works.
Members of the mock trial team are required to use public speaking and debate skills to perform the court case in front of actual Rhode Island lawyers and judges. Mock trials take place in actual courtrooms; the championship took place in Rhode Island Supreme Court with Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell presiding. Anthony said that the jury was made up of federal judges and lawyers.
Teams are scored by a panel of volunteers based on their presentation of facts, the content and structure of arguments and their courtroom manner.
Competing last year as a lawyer and this year as the rules expert, Anthony’s experience has helped her decide to pursue a career in law.
“I think mock trial has really helped me to decide what I want to do,” said Anthony, who will attend Ithaca College in New York and major in history and legal studies.
Attending Nationals will also be a cultural experience for members of the Mock Trial team. Franco said that schools from at least 48 of the 50 states are in attendance, as well as a few international competitors. She said her team had competed against students from Guam, Australia and South Korea at previous competitions. This will be Anthony’s first time attending nationals and she is interested to see what it will be like competing against teams from other countries.
The Toll Gate team, which is comprised of students from all grades, is now looking for any financial support they can find to finance their trip. The Toll Gate PTA has made a donation, as well as individuals from the community, including a few lawyers.
“We are having a ‘Dress Down’ day at school so teachers and faculty will help as well,” said Franco. Toll Gate principal Stephen Chrabaszcz has even set up a ConnectEd automated phone call to solicit donations from the community.
As for the students, Anthony said the team has been reaching out to local law firms to ask for donations and requested funds from the School Committee.
“The School Committee said they would give us something, but we don’t know how much yet,” said Anthony.
Team parents have also been trying to get donations from their workplaces.
Anthony, Isaac Davis, Matthew Deneff (captain), Dena Goldblatt (captain), Abby Gregory, Szabolcz Kiss and Julia Paolino are the seven students who hope to attend and compete at Nationals.
To make a donation to the team, drop off or send a check to Sharon Franco at Toll Gate High School. Checks should be made out to Toll Gate High School Mock Trial. Individuals may also call Franco with any donations or fundraising suggestions at 368-6005.