BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The Bloomfield Middle School eighth-grade gifted and talented class of John Shanagher has won the 2016
Law Adventure competition sponsored by the New Jersey State Bar Adventure. Competition judging is based on an original mock trial case created by the students. According to Shanagher, more than 130 schools participated this year.
The competition is essentially an American civics lesson with the purpose of testing the fundamental values of the Bill of Rights, which contains the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Students test these values by selecting an amendment and then writing down the facts of their court case along with testimony by four witnesses, two for both sides of the argument. This written scenario, called a fact pattern, is what is judged.
Eighteen students developed the winning BMS fact pattern. The students agreed, during an interview in Shanagher’s classroom last week, that creating it was organized chaos, but the walls of the classroom are covered with awards from mock-trial competitions.
Shanagher teams have been involved in mock-trial competitions since 1996. He has been a Bloomfield district teacher since 1981.
The eighth-grade students this year selected the 10th Amendment, which states that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states. The students decided on this amendment because they figured that most of the other competitors would chose easier ones to argue.
‘“Everyone talks about the First, Fourth or Fifth amendment,” Shanagher said. “They were looking for one that would set them apart.”
The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and religion; the Fourth Amendment forbids unlawful search and seizure; the Fifth Amendment protects a person from being tried without a grand jury indictment, being a witness against oneself, or being tried for the same crime twice.
After determining what amendment they wanted to test, the students divided into three groups. A group would either develop the facts of the case, the testimony of the plaintiffs, or the testimony of the defendants. The ideas establishing the facts, it could be said, were torn from today’s headlines.
The fact pattern created was a tightly written, four-page scenario which begins ominously. It reads, in part: “War has broken out in Chechnya. Russian troops are combating terrorist groups in Chechnya and at home. An attack in Nebraska, where a bombing by Chechen terrorists, at a Cornhusker football game in Lincoln, killed 38 people and wounded 322, has caused serious concerns.”
According to the fact pattern, because of violence in their homeland, 5,000 Chechen refugees come to America. The U.S. president, offering safe haven, distributes them around the country. Fifty are allowed to settle in Nebraska. But the Nebraskan governor, unable to legally stop the resettlement, sues the federal government to fund state services for the refugees, services the state would ordinarily provide its own citizens.
The two plaintiffs in this scenario are a wary Nebraskan governor, Dan Nye, and Omar Haas, a state resident. Benny Fitz, a Homeland Security agent, and Alik Umarov, a refugee, testify as defendants. The testimony of the four are contained in the fact pattern. According to the fact pattern, the issue being tested is whether a state can deny funding to refugees relocated by the federal government.
Shanagher, whose job during the process of creating the fact pattern is to play devil’s advocate, said it was an extraordinarily well-edited piece of balanced writing. But there was a caveat.
“We needed a brave judge because it was too controversial,” Shanagher said. “The federal government has a point. But is the governor driven by xenophobia or is he really interested in his people?”
Brave judge or not, earlier this month, the students were informed that they had won. As winners, they will now be required to act out the court case before an audience of students, educators and lawyers. This will happen on May 16, in New Brunswick.
“Bloomfield has a really good record of performance,” Shanagher said. “What sets our kids apart is that they perform without scripts. And they only have 15 minutes.”
Some of the students said they were not interested in performing. But Shanagher said all students will take part, either as a fact pattern witness or attorney, or as someone rehearsing the actor.
“Everyone will be involved,” Shanagher said. “All were involved with the writing. Whether on stage or in the audience, they all will have an important involvement.
Two of the students said they would like to act once they get to the high school and six said they would like to continue participating in mock trials. All agreed the competition was fun.
“If you’re looking for something that addresses all common core principles, this is it,” Shanagher said. “It wasn’t all singing and skipping. There was some yelling. There’s some strong egos here. But the editing of the fact pattern was extraordinary.”
Shanagher also had two seventh-grade classes that received honorable mentions in the mock trial competition this year.
The first place team members are: Jennifer Cardona; Aidan Carroll; Vincenzo Di Giano; Taina Durand; Jack Fernandez; Andrew Geraci; Faith Guerron; Jasra Habibul; Delyse Howard; John Joseph; Tennesia Morrison; Valerie Napolitano; Thien Nguyen; Mia Ornegri: Ravi Patel: Jaden Referente; Anthony Rizzi; and Jay Seput.