Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

The Park School wins mock-trial championship

Baltimore City College High School finishes second in annual event


The Park School team was photographed with Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Michelle D. Hotten, center, after defeating Baltimore City College High School Friday to win the 2017 Maryland State Bar Association Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition. (Maximilizan Franz / The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS – Amid echoes of Flint, Michigan, high school students from Baltimore and Pikesville battled Friday in the mock trial of a school superintendent accused of reckless endangerment and misconduct in office for turning school water fountains back on despite warnings of potential lead poisoning.

With his team cast as the prosecution, Baltimore City College High School student Toby Cormack said in his opening statement that Sam Saratoga was “too busy or too bothered” to heed the Clearwater Springs Public Schools’ chief custodian’s concerns that lead remained in the pipes despite CSPS efforts to clean them, including by shutting the fountains four years earlier. Saratoga’s “cavalier attitude” toward custodian Tai Taimat’s concerns led to at least one Clearwater Elementary School student suffering seizures from severe lead intoxication, Cormack said.


Park School law team coach Tony Asdourian and co-coach Guido Porcarelli, an attorney with the Law office of Frank Daily, celebrate Park School’s victory Friday at the 2017 Maryland State Bar Association Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition. (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

“Ms. Saratoga did nothing” to protect CSPS students, Cormack argued, adding that the superintendent’s conduct was criminally reckless.

Spencer Levitt – his Park School team cast as defense counsel – countered that Saratoga was “a public servant who was devoted to the children.” Rather than ignoring Taimat’s concerns, Saratoga relied on another report indicating the water did not have dangerously high lead levels, Levitt said.

Based on that report, Saratoga made the reasonable decision to restart the water fountains, thus enabling her to transfer the $850,000 CSPS had been paying for bottled to pay for new fire alarms and fixing leaky roofs and faulty air conditioning and heating systems, Levitt said.

Saratoga “devoted her entire professional career to children,” Levitt added. “She was not careless, she was not corrupt and she is no criminal.”

Cormack and Levitt’s statements were the opening salvos of a nearly two-hour mock trial, with a fact pattern taken from the findings of lead in the drinking water of Flint residents. The alleged evil-doer in the hypothetical was a school superintendent, who allegedly favored trimming the budget over the safety of students.

Court of Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten, who presided over the mock trial, ultimately ruled Saratoga not guilty of the charges against her: reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.

In addition to winning its client’s acquittal, The Park School won the bigger prize, as Hotten’s two judging aides for the event found the team had bested Baltimore City College and crowned Park champions of the 2017 Maryland State Bar Association Statewide High School Mock Trial Competition.

Hotten, in announcing the winner, praised the competitors from both teams for their poise, eye contact and ability to make compelling legal arguments with few notes.

“That is something I don’t see as often as I would like to” from attorneys who argue before Maryland’s top court, Hotten said. “I wish that the attorneys who come before us had an opportunity to see your performance.”

The judge added that “winning and losing is relative” and that the students “gain something far more important” from their high-caliber competition.

“Both of you won,” Hotten said. “You were both exceptional.”

Attorneys who served as coaches for the teams also voiced pride in the students’ performances.

“These teammates have taught me something at every practice, and one day I hope never to face them in a courtroom unless we are sitting at the same table,” said insurance defense attorney Guido Porcarelli, who coached Park. “No matter what they choose as a profession, they are going to do a great job.”

Porcarelli is with The Law Offices of Frank F. Daily P.A. in Hunt Valley.

Adina Amith, an attorney adviser for BCC, praised what she called the “scrappy new team” that held its practices at her house, where she either cooked or ordered pizza.

“I’m just really, really proud of the kids,” she said.

During the mock trial, the prosecution and defense each put up experts on lead poisoning. These witnesses were members of the same team that called them to testify and were well-skilled not only in direct examination but in deflecting the questions asked on cross examination by the other side.

Saratoga, played by Park student Paige McDonald, waived her constitutional privilege not to testify and told the court she has “always loved kids. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher growing up.” She said her decision to move from bottled water to re-opening the water fountains was based on a report that the pipes were safe.

On cross examination by the BCC prosecution, Saratoga said she had not had time to read Taimat’s emails to her because “things were so crazy” in preparing for the school year. Replacing the pipes, as suggested by the prosecution, would have been “unnecessary” and “prohibitively expensive,” Saratoga added.

In closing arguments, Mollie Eisner of Park defended Saratoga’s reliance on a report that the water was safe and her decision to transfer the bottled-water funds to ensure the students had adequate air conditioning and heat, as well as sufficient warning in the event of a fire and were spared the hazards of leaky roofs.

“Does that sound evil or wicked?” Eisner said.

BCC’s Eva Utzschneider, in closing for the prosecution, said Saratoga “refused to listen” to Taimat’s warnings.

“Ms. Saratoga ignored the alarms … at the expense of student health and well-being,” Utzschneider added. “She was expected to protect her students from even the possibility of harm.”

The annual mock-trial competition, which began in 1983, is sponsored by the Baltimore-based Citizenship Law Related Education Program, a nonprofit organization that backs programs to teach students about the law and judicial system.

This year’s competition began last fall with scores of schools across the state, according to organizers. That number eventually dwindled to a final four: Bishop Walsh High School in Cumberland, Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, BCC and Park.

The semifinals were held Thursday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis.

To purchase a reprint of this article, contact [email protected].