When the 16 members of Baker High School’s Mock Trial Team got all dressed up for the regional contest last month, they had no place to go except back to school.
As with most other activities this school year, the mock trial competition was different. Rather than competing face to face at the Courthouse in their own community or traveling to La Grande as they have in past years, they put their public speaking skills and courtroom decorum on display via computer from the BHS library.
Students took to the Zoom computer app for the contest.
Many students throughout the state chose to argue their cases and portray the parts of witnesses, judges, and attorneys from their homes and avoided the need for masks and social distancing, said BHS teacher Kris Pepera.
But the 16 members of his team took a different tack, said Pepera, who is in his eighth year of guiding the BHS Mock Trial team. Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matt Shircliff served as his co-coach as he has in past years.
“We made the decision as a group that we wanted to be together,” Pepera said. “We were one of the few teams in Oregon not to compete at home and wearing masks.”
To further complicate logistics, the first day of the competition, which had been set for Tuesday, Feb. 16, was canceled because of the massive power outage that struck much of the state during an ice storm in western Oregon.
The online option designed to keep participants safe from COVID-19 was not available without a power source.
The two-day contest, that was to have taken place on Tuesday, Feb. 16, and Thursday, Feb. 18, instead was shifted to a Thursday-Tuesday schedule.
The first day of the competition started on Thursday, Feb. 18.
“There were 110 people on the Zoom call when it started,” Pepera said. “They definitely made it work on Zoom.”
The Baker team competed three times over the two days, first at 2 p.m. and again at 5:45 p.m. Thursday and then once on Tuesday.
It took a little extra preparation for the BHS team to work out the kinks of how to make best use of the online system, Pepera said. A plan for the team to make its case in the competition from the Baker County Courthouse was thwarted by Wi-Fi issues.
But the students were patient and helpful throughout the process, Pepera said.
“They all just rolled with it,” he said. “Zoom was a bit of a nuisance but they accepted it and kept moving forward.”
This year’s contest was based on a civil case written by a committee of lawyers and teachers with experience in high school mock trial, according to Erin L. Esparza, executive director of the Classroom Law Project, which sponsors the program.
Taken from the headlines of the past year, the case directed students to consider the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against arrest without probable cause. As they have in the past year across the country, including in Oregon, the case demonstrated how those rights can collide with the duties of a police officer in the course of performing his or her job.
In this scenario, a journalist filed a civil lawsuit claiming that he was wrongfully arrested while covering a protest in his community to stop the demolition of a theater in the town.
The journalist claimed that police confused him with protesters, who he also maintains were not breaking the law, and whose rights he defended to police.
The journalist ultimately was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge. He was released from custody a short time later and the charge was dropped.
The journalist maintained that the arrest was retaliatory in violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly. In his complaint he sought a jury trial with economic, noneconomic and punitive damages to be determined.
“The case was really fun and interesting,” Pepera said. “We had some excellent conversations and it was a great case about the First and Fourth Amendments.”
Students began preparing for the competition when they returned to school after Christmas break. They met Monday through Thursday after school and spent an additional three hours on Saturdays to prepare.
COVID-19 protocols were observed throughout all practices, which meant long days of wearing masks for their coach and for students attending school in person on some of those days. Social distancing was maintained throughout the practices as well, Pepera said.
Judge Shirtcliff accommodated some trips to the Courthouse to give students the feel for an actual courtroom as well.
“He’s an incredible resource,” Pepera said. “I can’t say enough about what he brings to the program.”
In addition to routine courtroom protocol, Shirtcliff also provided his own experience with working through COVID-19 online and in-person courtroom procedures, mask requirements and social distancing, Pepera said.
Although the students didn’t advance to the state contest as last year’s team did, their coaches were proud of them nonetheless.
The region was divided differently this year and included two Bend teams, Baker and La Grande, rather than the usual Baker, La Grande, Vale and in some years, John Day teams.
The two Bend-area teams, Summit High School of Bend and Cascade Academy of Tumalo, will compete at the state contest this weekend.
Pepera said he was sorry this year’s team was not able to compete in person.
“This was such a cool and fun team,” he said. “I was really proud of this year’s group, especially because of Zoom.
“There were a lot more moving parts, but the students were really patient and easy to work with, and as always, they represented us really well,” he said.