Federal Relations

Bright Spots in Home Schooling

July 11, 2007  

Homeschoolers Win National Mock Trial Invitational

By Kristen Diaz

After winning second place in the Tennessee state tournament in March 2007, a team of seven homeschooled high schoolers took first place at the second annual American Mock Trial Invitational (AMTI) cosponsored by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation and the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, on May 4, 2007.

Homeschoolers Win National Mock Trial Invitational
Team members react to the news of their first place win at the 2007 American Mock Trial Invitational: Front row, left to right: Attorneys Ethan Hargraves, Meredith Toombs, and Kyle Johnson; back row: Witnesses Nate Kinard, David Hill, and Megan Toombs.
Photo courtesy of Kyle Johnson.

In the mock trial competition, two opposing teams of student attorneys and witnesses enact the trial of a fictitious court case before a judge. This year’s AMTI case required teams to prosecute or defend the accused of running over the victim with a vehicle while intoxicated.

The winning team, which homeschools under the umbrella of Chattanooga’s Family Christian Academy (FCA), competed against 13 other teams of high schoolers from around the United States and even from South Korea. FCA received an engraved plaque commemorating their victory.

“The two years the team was together were really the preparation,” says Megan Toombs, named best witness in two of the final four rounds of the national competition. Team captain Kyle Johnson adds, “I prayed that God would bring the right people together.” The team’s dedication and cooperation proved invaluable when it was tested in competition. “From the very beginning, we were determined to go to a national tournament,” says Kyle.

In the weeks leading up to the invitational, the team spent more time together than usual. Normally the team practices for a competition for three to four months, but for the invitational they had only one month. They prepared five to six days per week, spending 20 to 25 hours together and 5 to 7 hours on their own. All team members express strong thanks for the support of their local homeschooling community. Other homeschooled mock trial students studied and scrimmaged with them; team parents encouraged the students, arranged schedules, raised funds, cross-examined “witnesses,” and pored over the cases. Yet, they all ultimately ascribe the team’s victory to the grace of God.

Despite their hard work and their victory at the state level, FCA did not know what to expect at nationals. “We knew there would be tough teams,” says Kyle.

FCA students not only faced “tough teams” at nationals, but unfamiliar competition rules, such as new time allotments for their arguments. By the second day of the invitational, the team was tired, but Megan says, “When we heard we were [in the final round] we said, ‘OK, we need to stop, pray, ask God for grace, and then figure out what we need to do. . . .’ We always prayed before a round.”

When the round was over, the team felt uncertain of the outcome. “We had no idea which way the judges would go,” recalls Kyle. “We had some difficulties, but I thought at the same time we had done very well.” Team member Ethan Hargraves had even begun congratulating the opposing team, when the judges announced a decision strongly in favor of FCA. “It took a couple of seconds to start setting in,” adds Kyle, “and it has taken weeks to fully set in!”

Team coach Jeff Atherton is an attorney as well as a homeschooling father. He has coached local homeschoolers in mock trial for 16 years and led his teams to national wins in 2002 and 2003.

“When my family was considering home education,” he says, “homeschooling was not particularly well accepted in either the education or legal community. Homeschoolers were being prosecuted unjustly, and I felt that coaching mock trial would be a great way to empower the students and their families so they wouldn’t be afraid of the law.”

Chattanooga homeschoolers have embraced Mr. Atherton’s message. Several team members are considering law school in the future, and mock trial alumni repeatedly return to the team as assistant coaches. “I try to recommend TV repair and plumbing,” jokes Mr. Atherton, “but these kids stick with the law.”

“I think homeschooling was perhaps the key to success [in mock trial]” says Jennifer Toombs, the team’s assistant coach and the mother of team members Megan and Meredith Toombs. The Chattanooga students have been homeschooled most of their lives, honing their logical and analytical skills since an early age. Experience with various age groups has made them more comfortable communicating with adults. Homeschooling also gave them flexible, individualized schedules.

“I just can’t say enough about the benefits of mock trial for home-educated kids,” says Mrs. Toombs, “because it takes the skills that they are already developing and develops them further.”

 Other Resources

To find out more about the American Mock Trial Invitational, visit www.njsbf.org

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