By Janice Llanes Fabry
The Rye Neck High School mock trial team is going on to the quarterfinals on March 23 at the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, after besting Clarkstown North High School 61-57 on March 16. They’ll be going up against Blind Brook in what will be the number one match up.
“We have a smart, dedicated team and the students are giving their heart and soul,” said coach Marcella Scalise. “It has been an eye-opening experience for them that gives them a different perspective of the legal system and behind the scenes insight.”
Rye Neck High School is competing against 23 other high schools in the County. A collaboration between the State Department of Education and the State Bar, the annual program is part of a larger state competition held in May. This year’s case is Robin Berkman v. County of Dover, a civil case involving a lawsuit by Berkman for malicious prosecution. He spent two years in prison, wrongfully convicted of second-degree robbery and first-degree attempted murder.
The mock trial teams alternate, arguing for either the plaintiff or the defense at each trial. Students represent lawyers, witnesses, and legal researchers. Their performance in the courtroom is judged by lawyers from the Westchester County Bar Association, who determine which school makes the most convincing argument. Point values are assigned to various categories, including opening and closing statements, as well as direct and cross-examinations.
The 20 Rye Neck High School freshmen, sophomores, and juniors participating in the afterschool program have been preparing intensely since December. “We pick apart the case, establish a timeline, figure out the undisputed facts on both sides, and then assign students different roles,” said Scalise.
Assisting the team are local lawyers and Rye Neck parents Jonathan Michaels, Theodore Liebmann, Federal Court Judge Lisa Margaret Smith, and Scalise’s own mother, Deborah Scalise.
The coach not only grew up in a household where both parents were attorneys, but she also worked in their offices and in the Federal Court of the Southern District of New York. Hence, when she was hired at Rye Neck High School as the freshman Global History teacher this year, she welcomed coaching the Mock Trial team.
“I had some experience and thought this would be a fantastic opportunity for me and for the students,” she said. “It is a perfect fit.”
On the team’s first go-round against Horace Greeley High, Rye Neck won. Although they lost to Blind Brook High School in their second mock trial, their previous high score guaranteed them a place in the third competition against Clarkstown North. Now they’re preparing to go up against Blind Brook again, this time on the plaintiff side.
“I want to take them as far as I can in one of the toughest, most competitive counties,” said Scalise. “We’re a pretty young team, so we have time to grow, develop, and work on our skills.”