Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2005

Underdog Story
How a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds learned to be trial lawyers
By Janine Robben

In this era of inadequate school funding and school closures, of increasing standardized testing and the sense that some kids are indeed being left behind, it’s hard to believe that just a few people can make a difference.

But let Mary Cooper and Lia Saroyan tell you a remarkable story.

It begins, well, it’s hard to say when it begins.

In the mid-1970s, when what would later become the Classroom Law Project got underway at the Oregon State Bar?

In 1993, when Cooper’s cousin, Becky Lukens, and four other West Linn teachers decided to start their own school?

Or in 1995, when Cooper and Saroyan, both assistant disciplinary counsel with the OSB, first appeared at Lukens’ Pacific Crest Community School to show a bunch of flaky 11- and 12-year-olds how to take part in, and win, a mock trial competition?

Where the story ends is hard to say, as well.

Lia Saroyan and Mary Cooper, both assistant disciplinary counsel with the Oregon State Bar.

Was it in 2001, when the last of Cooper’s and Saroyan’s powerhouse team members — four trips to the state level of mock trial competition in seven years — graduated from Pacific Crest? Now, as those same kids, some out of college, some just finishing up, are preparing for careers in herpetology, medical research and mathematics? Or at some time in the future, when they play out their roles as citizens?

But regardless of where the story ends, Cooper will always remember one of its key players.

"There was this little girl who hung around in the back of the classroom," she says of her first year coaching at Pacific Crest. "Wasn’t on the team, didn’t say a word, but was clearly fascinated. I didn’t even know her name until the following year, when she signed on as a minor witness. She was Celeste Holz-Schietinger, and she was the last kid you’d ever pick if you were scouting for trial court talent."

Talk to Becky Lukens for any length of time, and "the last kid" is someone you’ll hear about a lot.

"I’d been teaching social studies at West Linn High School," says Lukens, a small dynamo for change, "and it became really clear to me that there were some brilliant people who were not being served in the classroom. My hunch was they needed an alternative approach to learning."

So, in 1993, Lukens and four of her fellow teachers decided to start an alternative middle and high school. And, when both West Linn and Portland passed on making it part of their districts, they decided to finance it themselves.

Becky Lukens, co-founder of Pacific
Crest Community School in Portland.
"I refinanced my house," says Lukens, as though taking a huge personal financial risk to help other people’s kids was the most natural thing in the world to do.

"You just have one life," she says simply. "You need to do it as well as you possibly can."

Within several years, the school had a permanent home in a former church building in Northeast Portland. Today, it has 13 teachers, a maximum of 90 students and a basic college preparatory program with an emphasis on art and drama.

According to Lukens, about 80 percent of Pacific Crest’s students go on to college. "The kids we do really good work with are non-traditional, college-prep kids," she says. "They’re really ambitious kids, bright and fun, who are not nerds — nerds meaning someone who isolates himself in his brain. They have a lot of joy and seek out opportunities to accomplish great things."

But, Lukens is the first to admit, the road to greatness — for these kids — can be rough.

For example, the mother of one Pacific Crest graduate says that she and her husband placed their son there because "things were not going well in public school for him.

"We were called in to the (public) school and told that he was not cutting it, not making it, that he needed a psychiatrist and meds," says Fineke Brasser, whose son, Romie Gibly, was a member of Cooper’s and Saroyan’s mock trial team. "Then we were told there was something wrong with his teacher. He would hold onto the bed and say, ‘I’m not going (to school) and you can’t make me.’

"So we put him in the car and started looking for a place to send him. We kind of dropped him on Pacific Crest’s doorstep, and he didn’t want to leave. At 5 p.m. the teachers called and said, ‘You have to come get him.’"

Today, Gibly has a degree in chemistry from Pennsylvania’s Haverford College, and an eight-year full scholarship to Northwestern University, where he will start work this fall on advanced degrees in chemistry and medicine.

When the OSB’s Cooper approached Lukens about starting a mock trial program at Pacific Crest, she was talking about one of the best-known aspects of the Classroom Law Project.

The project, which was started at the bar in the mid-1970s, is now a separate, non-profit agency, well known to Oregon lawyers for using mock trials, constitutional law competitions and other devices to teach the principles of democracy to school children. A number of Oregon lawyers serve on its board, and its financial supporters include the bar, Lewis & Clark Law School and a half-dozen of Oregon’s biggest law firms.

For Classroom Law Project’s executive director, Marilyn Cover, the need for programs like the mock trial competition, which this year drew 93 teams from 65 high schools around the state, is obvious.

"The heart of why we have public schooling is to teach about democracy," she says.

But Pacific Crest’s Lukens, who initially focused more on the device of a mock trial than on its underlying civic principles, says her initial reaction to Cooper’s proposal was, "Why?

"I’m not a very combative person," she explains. "But a bunch of the kids said, ‘Sure!’ They’re much more competitive than I am."

The nascent program faced several obstacles.

First, says Cooper, "I knew nothing about the program. So I enlisted Lia, who also knew nothing about it."

Second, Pacific Crest has an atypical student body.

"The school is more loosey-goosey than either of us," says Saroyan diplomatically. "(Our class) is a much more-structured environment than what they’re used to."

Lukens is more blunt. "These kids are incredibly flaky," she admits.

According to Lukens, "By the time they’re seniors, they have their act together." But — and this was Cooper’s and Saroyan’s third obstacle — some of the students who expressed interest in mock trial were nowhere close to being seniors.

"Some of these kids were like 11," says Saroyan.

In fact, of the three students who eventually formed the nucleus of Cooper’s and Saroyan’s team, one — Holz-Schietinger — was 11. And the other two, Gibly and Alexa Mater, were only 12.

According to Mater, they wouldn’t even have been allowed to participate in the mock trial program but for a Pacific Crest anomaly.

"Officially, it doesn’t have grade levels," she says. "So they couldn’t technically say we weren’t high school."

Cooper vividly recalls Holz- Schietinger, who is now a senior and soccer player at the Evergreen State College in Olympia and plans a career in herpetology.

"Her parents were both teachers," says Cooper. "They’d been told she needed some kind of special education because she was dehabilitatingly shy.

"That first year, she was very shy: She’d follow Becky around everywhere. She’d sit in the back of the mock trial room and not say a word. Not a word."

The next year, says Cooper, Holz-Schietinger volunteered to be a trial witness: The year after that, a lawyer.

"I won’t lie," says Cooper. "She was just horrible at first. She’s one of those people who gets words all tangled up. Nature did not intend this girl to be a trial lawyer."

"But," says Cooper, "you’ve never seen a kid work so hard at anything. I’d go by the school, and Celeste would be walking around on the front lawn, practicing her opening statement or closing argument. She’d drill her witnesses until they were sick of her. She worked and re-worked her cross-examinations until they were wiggle- and objection-proof.

"By the time she was a junior," says Cooper, "Celeste had been on the team four years and was the de facto, if not official, captain. To everyone’s surprise, the team finished first in the Multnomah County region that year, which was a pretty amazing accomplishment, since Pacific Crest’s entire student body consisted of 70 students at that time."

"It was going up against the big boys," says Lukens, naming some of the giants in mock trial competition, like Portland’s Catlin Gabel, Grant and Lincoln high schools, each of which has won the state title multiple times since 1987. "Some of the team members had left these same schools in a defeated manner. Now they were coming back."

They came back, and back. In the seven years between 1995 and 2001, Pacific Crest teams went to state four times. In 1996, only the second year the program was in existence, a team that included Gibly and Mater placed fifth: In 2001, a team that included Holz-Schietinger playing the role of lawyers for both sides placed seventh.

How did they do it?

First, Cooper and Saroyan — with the help of other lawyers from the OSB and private practice — worked their young charges.

Says team member Mater, "There were a few years when Mary or Lia would cross examine our witnesses. Those were brutal. I think they cared about it more than anyone else. We got really competitive with it, but we loved it."

Second, the novice coaches turned Pacific Crest’s apparent minus — its offbeat student body — into a plus.

Says Saroyan, "Every year, there are some kids who are real superstars, and some who are not. In a different school environment, the kids who are not superstars would not be there. This school has a way of nurturing these kids, ignoring the parts of them that are all that other schools see."

For example, says Cooper, "Aaron Katz, who was also on the famous Celeste/Romie/Alexa team, was so flamboyant, independent, creative and different. He wore suits out of a gangster movie and bright red patent leather shoes. We tried to calm him down for the competitions, but got nowhere. He’s now at film school back east. At most high schools, I doubt there would have been room on the team for someone as independent-minded as Aaron."

Finally, Cooper and Saroyan used the youth of some of their team members to their advantage.

"We got better over the years," says Mater, who — with Romie Gibly — was arguing cases against high school seniors at state when she was the public school equivalent of an eighth-grader.

"It didn’t bother me that much," says Mater, who had started mock trial the year before. "Maybe, the very first time, it was pretty intimidating, but we went and did our thing."

But Pacific Crest’s Lukens says she doesn’t think young students from other schools would have fared as well.

"A seventh-grader being questioned by a senior," she says. "I don’t think they know how intense that is. Our seventh and eighth graders have to hold their own; they get it in the hall all the time."

And hold their own they did.

"They were called the short team because they were so little," says Gibly’s mother of the pairing of her son and Mater that took fifth in state in 1996. They were so funny. They did it so wholeheartedly: They were convinced that they were better than everybody. He absolutely loved it."

It was, coaches Cooper and Saroyan agree, a glorious run.

"This was a fabulous group of kids," says Cooper. "We had them so long, we got to know them so well, and in the end they were so good."

But so far, none of their team members has decided to pursue a career in law.

In fact, says Mater, "Doing mock trial made me decide I didn’t want to be a trial lawyer. I didn’t want the intensity and the pressure."

Instead, Mater, who has a degree in mathematics from Reed College, plans to pursue a doctorate in the same field.

"If I’d gone into law, I probably would have stuck with appellate," she says. "I liked the idea of coming up with logical arguments, rather than courtroom theatrics. That’s my style."

So is that the end of Cooper’s and Saroyan’s story?

Not according to Mater, who says that she still is benefiting from her mock trial experience.

"I’m a pretty logical person, but a lot of times I’ll forget about how I come across to other people," she says. "Now I think about how to present information. Mock trial really helped me in terms of public speaking, public presence, in having an appreciation for the complexities of the law and how rarely there is a ‘right’ answer."

Mater’s latter comments about law would be music to the ears of Cover, whose Classroom Law Project is fighting to hang onto social studies and civics in modern school curriculums.

"No Child Left Behind has shone the light on math, reading and writing," Cover says, referring to the federal legislation, passed in 2001, that requires mandatory testing in those areas. "Science will be phased in. But there’s not a mandate for testing for social studies.

"People say, ‘Of course, civics must be taught,’" says Cover. "But if you have a school that’s not performing well on the mandates, their opportunity for mock trial is gone. More and more, we hear that very little social studies is actually being taught."

Barbara Rost, the project’s program director, shares her concerns.

"The reaction (of school administrators) is, ‘Do not put more things on my plate,’" she says. "But what we’re talking about is the plate, the foundation. The other things are the potatoes on the plate."

Cover and Rost say they also are concerned that funding and staffing issues in public schools, including the PERS-driven wave of teacher retirements, will further limit the opportunities for Oregon students to take part in programs like mock trial.

"West Albany has always had two teams," says Rost. "Now it’s down to one, and a retired teacher is going to come back to coach that team. There aren’t resources, within the school, to keep it going."

Cover adds, "People say, ‘I’ve volunteered my time.’ But there’s a new crop of kids every year. We’re still here, still doing it."

And so Cooper, Saroyan and Lukens, for whom the remarkable story is not yet over, will be back next year.

"We always have kids like that (Holz-Schietinger, Gibly and Mater) here," says Lukens. "They just converged at one time.

"We have," she says confidently, "the makings of another great year."

In 2000, the Pacific Crest mock trial team captured the regional championship in a competition held at the Multnomah County Courthouse. Team members were (left to right): Alexa Mater, Romie Gibly, Celeste Holtz-Schietinger, coaches Mary Cooper (back) and Lia Saroyan (front), Kanji Kehrwald, Kimberly Stauber, Kevin Sammuels, Elizabeth Stevens, Michael Stauber and Aaron Katz.

Janine Robben is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She has been a member of the bar since 1980. Additional information about the Classroom Law Project is available from its website, (www.classroomlaw.org). Additional information about Pacific Crest Community School is available from its website, (www.pcrest.org).

© 2005 Janine Robben

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