Brentwood High School junior Daniela Cruz stood before state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho on Monday afternoon, delivering opening arguments.
Using what she learned from her weeks of training with students from Touro College's Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, Cruz stood confidently, calling on him to grant an order of protection for her "client," an alleged victim of domestic abuse.
“I was shaking, and my heart was beating out of my chest, but I think I did pretty good,” the 17-year-old said of the presentation, her second time speaking before a judge as part of the high school’s Mock Trial Program.
Each semester, students from Touro’s trial advocacy program volunteer to teach Brentwood High School students about the legal process and how to defend and prosecute a case. The program culminates in a mock trial before a real judge.
The after-school program, started by Touro two years ago, helps students use critical thinking to examine a legal case and develop public speaking skills.
“I felt very strongly that we should be involved with local high schools and middle schools and that we should really think of ourselves as a resident in a neighborhood, as a family among families,” said Harry Ballan, dean of the law center in nearby Central Islip. “Part of that is spending time in the high school, getting to know the students, helping to educate them, providing an activity that’s fun as well as educational.”
Brentwood students in grades nine through 12 who are part of the Mock Trial Club meet with Touro students every Monday.
“At the beginning of the semester when we start this, some of them have zero idea of basic terminology that goes into law. Some of them just know criminal justice from …TV shows,” said John Muller, a social studies teacher at the high school and the club's adviser.
Throughout the semester, the students build upon their vocabulary and learn what a lawyer’s life is like, including preparation and everything that goes into case law, he said.
Justin Mayo, 17, a senior at the high school, was one of more than 20 students who participated in the mock trial.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking a little bit, speaking before a real judge,” he said. But “that’s what makes this club, makes it really good. You get to actually meet a real judge. And you actually get to learn more about the courtroom setting, which can be helpful in life."
It’s important for these students to know that people from their community care, and to introduce them to the legal profession, Camacho said.
“Over the last several years, the community of Brentwood has struggled. There’s been a number of tragedies,” he said. Recent years have seen an upsurge in gang violence and slayings in the area — authorities have particularly accused the brutal MS-13 group — and have brought crackdowns by law enforcement officials, resulting in scores of arrests and deportations of suspected gang members.
“Law schools and the legal profession give you the skills to persuade people. It gives you the passion to care about people. It gives you the passion to change things,” Camacho said. And that’s a learning experience for both the Brentwood and Touro students, he said.
Nicholas Maggio, a second-year law student at Touro, participated in mock trials when he was younger.
“Not only did that inform me about a legal career as an option, but it also helped sharpen my advocacy skills, sharpen my ability to speak, to think, to analyze things,” said Maggio, 23, of Yaphank.
He volunteered at Brentwood to share that experience with others.
“They’ve come a long ways since we started,” he said of the students. “To see that progression not only makes me feel good as a coach, but it makes me feel good to see them see that improvement.”