On Huntington’s Mock Trial Team, Students Thrive

Resiliency. Confidence. Public speaking. These are just some of the benefits, along with oral advocacy and critical thinking skills, that were gained by Huntington High School students who participated in this year’s New York Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition.

While the 2024 Suffolk County Regional High School Mock Trial championship recently went to the Ward-Melville High School team, Huntington High School students who participated learned valuable skills and lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives, according to team mentor Xavier Palacios, managing partner of Palacios Law Group, and board of education  president of the Huntington Union Free School District.

“They’re a really wonderful group of kids,” Palacios said, as he reflected on this year’s team.

Huntington High School was one of 31 teams that participated in four weeks of round 1 competition, moving on to three rounds of single elimination playoffs at the Suffolk County District Court in Central Islip, according to the Suffolk County Bar Association.

Each team competed to earn points based on their presentation and legal skills. The teams argued both sides of the case and assumed the roles of attorneys and witnesses.

Students get involved in this extracurricular activity around September and the program can run through May, if the team makes it to the State finals, Palacios said. Students devote many hours of practice and preparation, learning relevant case law and statutes, evidentiary rules, and fact patterns.

Any initial apprehension some younger students, ninth and tenth graders, may feel upon joining the team for their first time, tends to diminish as they gain experience with speaking in public.

For Nina Fastilla, an 11th grader, this was her third year on the team, where she most recently served as an attorney.

“My biggest takeaway has just been the ability to think on my feet and really work with the team in order to reach a shared goal,” Fastilla said.

“Public speaking is such an important ability to have, especially considering that I want to pursue a career in law,” Fastilla added. “Being able to work with my co-counsel has probably been our biggest growth this year. In the past we had difficulty in doing that. At the County Championship it was imperative that we communicated with each other and shared material to bring our case

For 11th grader Isabella Careccia-Johnson, also in her third year on the team, her biggest takeaway was “to listen to what everybody else is saying,” she said.

“Sometimes you get hyper-focused on what you have to do and you’re so worried about thinking of an objection – or what you’re going to say in response to an objection – that you miss out onimportant information, that opposing counsel or a witness is saying, or even sometimes the judge will point you in the right direction.” Here, Careccia-Johnson said, “being present and grounded
throughout the entire experience” is key.

Elizabeth James, an 11 th grader in her third year on the team, said the competition “helped me sort out the different sides and gain different perspectives for everything. Not only seeing both sides of the case, but also hearing from my teammates, their perspectives, really helped me gain
a better understanding of the case, and gain a better understanding of how to work together as a team.”

Over the months of preparation and practice, Palacios sees the team members evolve as they begin to master the required skills, learn to think on their feet, build confidence, and convey their side’s legal position in a respectful manner.

Team members, he said, learn to present opening and closing arguments and conduct direct and cross examination of witnesses. Reacting to unexpected courtroom moves and arguments from opposing sides in the mock trial help the students think on their feet to formulate an effective response. It’s all about teamwork and working together to put forth the strongest argument for
their side.

All this is designed to take place in a safe and supportive environment where it’s okay to stumble and fail yet learn from the experience. The coaches and mentors aim to make it fun for the students, where nobody judges each other – it’s a learning process.

In past years the Huntington team has made it to the state finals, no small feat given that around 500 schools statewide participate. The season may be over, but the team tends to stay in touch even after they graduate.

“They’ll come back and help coach,” Palacios said.


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