LAFAYETTE — The investigation into the disappearance and murder of University of Louisiana at Lafayette student Mickey Shunick and the judicial proceedings that ended in an Aug. 17 guilty plea and life sentence for her killer, Brandon Lavergne, provided real-life lessons for Liz Tullier’s classes at Northside High School.
“At the beginning of class, we’d talk about the case. We made a timeline and tracked the case. We’d talk about the difference between fact and speculation. What is a grand jury? What is an indictment,” said Tullier, who is the director of the high school’s new Academy of Legal Studies.
The academy began this school year, and as a school of choice, is open to any student in the district regardless of school zone. About 75 students are enrolled in the academy.
For the past nine years, Tullier has offered law courses to students, but the creation of the academy enabled the school to expand course options, including college-credit courses offered by South Louisiana Community College.
One of the new courses is in forensics, and this week students learned the process of sketching a crime scene. Next week, they’ll delve into criminal profiling of serial killers.
The classes provide hands-on learning in a field Kaela Alfred would like to pursue a career in, she said. Alfred, a senior, has been taking courses with Tullier since she was a freshman.
“We learn about fingerprinting, blood spatter, DNA, facial reconstruction,” she said. “We’ll get to visit the crime lab and Angola.”
Dontrevon Matthews, a junior, was interested in forensic science as a career — until he took Tullier’s forensics class.
“I can’t stomach it,” he said with a smile. But Matthews plans to stay in the academy to investigate a future in criminal justice.
Some students, such as junior Sebastien Noel have other career goals but enrolled in the academy to learn more about the law.
“I want to work offshore,” Noel said. “I wanted to know the law and my rights.”
The academy is beneficial to students interested in exploring their options in law-related fields, said Susan Holliday, executive director of the Lafayette Bar Association.
One way to do that is to join the school’s mock trial team. The team is preparing for an October appearance at the invitation-only Empire Mock Trial Association’s international competition in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The association “adopted” the Northside program, and — along with the Young Lawyers Association and the Laborde & Neuner law firm — is assisting with fundraising to help the team get to New York, she said.
Brandon Letulier, a member of the Young Lawyers and a partner with the firm Laborde & Neuner, is one of the team’s coaches and will travel with the team in October.
Letulier, a graduate of Northside High, got involved as a coach about seven years ago when he judged a regional mock trial competition and realized his alma mater had a team.
“The program gives many skills to students regardless of the career path they take. It teaches them people skills, public speaking, teamwork, procedural law and how to think on their feet,” Letulier said.
It also provides students with analysis and critical-thinking skills, he added.
Cousins Victoria Ned, a senior, and Jamila Dugas, a junior, said the team practices at least three times a week, sometimes four, after school in preparation for the competition.
Their case is fictional: Davis vs. HappyLand Toy Co., filed by parents of a 2-year-old who died after he ingested toy beads coated in a chemical that when swallowed metabolizes into gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, or GHB.
While the case is fictional, it is based on an actual situation, the students said.
As part of the competition, the team members may play a role on both sides of the case. For instance, Dugas is a witness for the defense and a lawyer for the plaintiff. Ned is a witness for the plaintiff.
The cousins said they are more distracted by the trip rather than by how nervous they are about the competition.
“I’m nervous about flying,” Ned said.
“I’m worried about losing my luggage,” Dugas said.
The team will face 35 other mock trial teams from across the country and world, and the teens said they expect fierce competitors.
“It’s a lifestyle for them,” Ned said of other teams. “These are schools that have won for years.”
“We’re like the underdog,” Dugas added.
The team may be new to the invitational, but they’re “a force to be reckoned with,” Holliday said.
“None of our schools in Louisiana have ever been accepted to do what they’ve been asked to do,” Holliday said of the invitational competition. “For them to be able to compete internationally is huge.”