Tommy Colitsas isn’t the type of young man to let go of what he wants. If you need proof, you can look at the Mock Trial program he helped see off the ground at High School South.
A couple things to get out of the way early: Yes, Mock Trial is common enough in high schools for most people to not think much of a new program starting up somewhere. But while it’s existed at North for years, there’s been no Mock Trial program at South for at least a decade.
That absence didn’t sit well with Colitsas, nor for Chris and Veronica Mehno, two West Windsor residents who helped get Mock Trial running at South by diving right into the process with Colitsas.
It took a few months of work, and the ultimate result of getting South into its first Mock Trial competition this decade was a close loss, but somewhere in here is a story not unlike Rocky. Sure, our hero didn’t win the belt, but that’s hardly the point of the story.
The story of getting Mock Trial to South began a few years ago, when a then-South student named Jordon Degroote (who’s now at Georgetown University) wanted to launch the program. The program was an offshoot of South’s Model U.N. Club. But while he lobbied heavily for the program, Degroote’s bid ultimately was unsuccessful for the usual reasons a program doesn’t happen in a school — lack of money to implement it and no one to run it.
The story would have ended there but for the 15-year-old Colitsas, now a South sophomore, who started looking into resurrecting Mock Trial at his campus at the beginning of last summer.
He’d heard about Degroote’s failed efforts and knew that North had a Mock Trial team (and a very good one at that). He also knew several other schools in the region had a team, the most notable being Princeton Day School, which Colitsas admits is like the ’Bama of Mock Trial in Mercer County.
While Colitsas was starting to lobby for a team at South, Veronica Mehno heard about the effort. Mehno, who owns a translation and language company based in New York, was a candidate for the WW-P School Board this year.
She and her husband, Chris, have three children in the district, one in second grade and twins in kindergarten.
In the meantime, Colitsas — part of the same Model U.N. Club as Degroote, incidentally — knew of Degroote and his efforts at South a few years earlier. Mehno also knew Degroote’s name, and Degroote, she said, put her and Colitsas in touch.
She wanted to help because she just didn’t think it was fair that one end of the school district had a Mock Trial program while the other end did not.
“I’m a big believer that all students should have the same opportunities,” Veronica Mehno said.
Mock Trial resonated with her for another reason — Chris Mehno is an attorney; a fact that turned out to be pretty important in getting the team running.
As Colitsas and his newly recruited help looked into establishing a Mock Trial team at South, they ran into the same problem Degroote faced, Veronica said — no one wanted to run it. One of the requirements for having a Mock Trial team in a school is, there needs to a teacher or stipend-paid attorney to coach the team. While Colitsas worked up some interest among his fellow South students, Veronica Mehno kept pressure on the school to initiate the program.
Eventually, she said, the school board told the Mehnos that in lieu of hiring an attorney, Chris could oversee the team if he became a substitute teacher in the district. So he got his sub’s license and the team finally had someone to oversee it.
Meanwhile, the interest Colitsas drummed up was getting too large to ignore. He and a set of friends from school — the most notable being senior Neal Singal, who eventually became one of the team’s captains — had collected about 60 names of students interested in seeing the program start.
In short, Colitsas had backup. The core group of students helping to get the team going are Naman Sarda, a junior, who served as “the other lawyer besides me and Neal,” Colitsas said; Gabby Bailey (freshman), Ria Seth (junior), and Anika Prakash (junior).
Colitsas, with his backup, made a presentation before the board near the beginning of the school year, and with no reason to not greenlight the program, the school board said yes.
“The next day we spoke at school, we put a couple fliers up,” Colitsas said.
Word spread fast. Chris Mehno said that at least 30 kids signed up for the formal team, though by the time things really got going for the prep work for the actual trial competition in Trenton, the list winnowed away to about 10. Much of that prep work was getting up to speed on how to run a Mock Trial team.
Chris Mehno explained the basics of how a Mock Trial competition works. The New Jersey Bar Association oversees the program and competitions in the state; it sends out a 100-page publication that has the case and rules in it. South’s premiere case to try was about someone on trial for murder after selling opioids to someone who died from taking them.
Like a real trial, there are attorneys, witnesses, and a jury, only everyone is a student. The judge who oversees the trial at competition is a practicing attorney, but that was not Mehno.
He was the team’s coach, meaning he provided guidance for the kids to keep them within the bounds of a solid legal argument, but the kids are the ones who put all the arguments and statements and witnesses and everything else for the case into action.
“They were really good,” he said of the students. “They don’t need much guidance. They did a great job.”
To advance, a team needs to win two rounds, one as the prosecution and one as the defense. At its inaugural Mock Trial in Trenton in early January, South won its first round as the defense, but lost to PDS in Round 2 as the prosecution.
South’s showing, Veronica Mehno said, is far more impressive than it might appear. One main reason she feels that way is that Mock Trial teams typically know about a trial five or six months in advance.
But because South didn’t really get the club fully operational until the school years was already running (it takes time to find the participants and assign their roles and learn how to run a team), the team’s six-month prep time, in reality, came down to less than a month, she said.
Colitsas doesn’t hide how frantic it was pulling a trial together on such short notice.
“It was definitely a lot of work,” he said. “A lot more than we expected.”
The work happened every day after school for two or three hours, Colitsas said. Then it happened at home (where, you know, the students were also dealing with homework from being in school). Lots of calls, lots of back-and-forth, he said.
And lots of memorizing. Mock Trial features lots of scripts that teams need to know, like actors in a play. Witnesses are prepped, just like for a real trial, and the students acting as witnesses need to know what to say when called to the stand.
The Mercer County Mock Trial competition in January turned out to be a finish line just a shade too far for South to reach this time. But coming up short against the eventual competition winners is not something anyone is hanging a head about. Quite the opposite, in fact. While Colitsas is excited for the future of the team (and will no doubt welcome a longer prep time than a few weeks next time around), Veronica Mehno can’t stop praising the team’s effort.
“They did a phenomenal job,” she said. “Chris and I are so, so proud of them.”
As for Colitsas, he said he learned an incredible amount from both putting the team together and entering the competition. Mostly, he learned that getting things you want in life takes a lot of legwork. And, there’s this:
“I learned a lot about leadership,” he said.
This taste of what it’s like to be a lawyer has sharpened his appetite to become one. Colitsas is aiming for Princeton University and wants to be an attorney.
If there’s anything to be learned from Colitsas himself, it’s that he doesn’t just accept that things can’t work out with some effort. Petitioning the school board for a Mock Trial team, in fact, was not his only time trying to start a school program. Colitsas tried to launch a tutoring program for kids in Trenton schools through South in 2017. Again the board said no. So he did it anyway, on his own.
Colitsas, with the help of his father, Jim, a CPA with Ernst & Young, put together a legit 501c3 nonprofit called Education for Success. The elder Colitsas helped get a board of directors in place and get the paperwork filed and the project funded through sponsors (to the tune of about $2,000). Tommy got student volunteers from South, all of whom, he said, “really wanted to get involved and tutor the underprivileged.”
Education for Success visits second- and fifth-graders at Trenton’s Parker Elementary School every Wednesday during the school year. About 75 kids are involved across the program.
Because, remember — Tommy Colitsas is not the kind of young man who lets go when he wants something. And he’s learned a valuable life lesson only halfway through his teens.
“If it doesn’t originally work at the school board,” he said, “there’s always another way.”