Students Weigh O.J. Case in Class
Fascination with the trial was turned into lessons on race, justice, DNA evidence
WOODLAND HILLS, CALIF. — When former football great O.J. Simpson went on trial for murder more than a year ago, Arash Ghassemi, the 17-year-old center of the El Camino Real High School football team, thought the African-American athlete was innocent.
Today, despite the verdict, Ghassemi believes Simpson is guilty. The reason he changed his mind? His first-period government class. Says Ghassemi, ''The coroner was so tedious in the trial, I skipped it. But talking about it here made me think, and I came up with a different conclusion.''
While experts wrangle over what lessons to draw from the Simpson case, teachers at El Camino, determined to make use of their students' fascination with a trial that has transfixed the globe, have brought it into the classroom.
El Camino teacher Jack Koenig, a 30-year veteran of the classroom, made the social and legal issues raised in the Simpson trial integral to the current-events segment of his combination government and economics class.
For instance, the group did a unit on DNA when the court heard expert testimony on the topic. Students prepared papers on the admissibility of DNA evidence and discussed at length what the evidence did and did not prove. When the controversy over comments by former Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman to writer Laura Hart McKinney erupted, the class looked at the legal issues such as impeachment of testimony and perjury. As the lawyers debated the significance of spousal abuse, so did Mr. Koenig's class.
''It's important to make theory real life,'' observes Koenig. ''This is where the kids are developing their ethical, philosophical, and religious thoughts on life,'' he adds. The Simpson trial has been so pervasive, the students couldn't possibly ignore it.
Koenig says open discussion of real-life struggles over right and wrong, guilt and innocence, is vital to preparing young adults for life beyond school. He believes the Simpson trial has been a useful learning tool because his class went deeper into issues.
Verdict analysis was the final Simpson topic, and students filled out debriefing sheets. They had to identify the main issues of the trial and what percentage each issue such as race, problems in the crime lab, coroner's office, and police department played in the final verdict.
Student Rebekan Baylis observed that ''the trial shouldn't have been televised because people treated it as entertainment,'' giving media overexposure a 20-percent role in the verdict. Fellow senior Justin Holland said 80 percent of the verdict was determined by problems with the prosecution's office, because ''they just didn't do their job,'' while class member Michelle Crisostomo felt that ''the racial issue had the most effect on the unanimous vote.''
Across the hall, in social studies teacher Ron Sima's class, students literally jumped out of their seats to assess the trial and verdict. In a format Mr. Sima uses frequently, called the ''Fishbowl,'' four students at a time sparred with each other over their opinions.
* Lucas Guy, a junior: ''He's guilty ... but the easiest [way] for the jurors to get out was vote not guilty.''
* David Emmanuel, a junior: ''I don't think you're going to spend a year locked up with this issue and then just come out and say, 'Not guilty' just to get it over.''
* Natalie Kepes, a junior: ''I think it was a smart decision saying innocent because if they had any doubt at all, he shouldn't go to jail. If he's guilty, he'll have it on his conscience anyway.''
* Teresa Calimag, a junior: ''What about the glove? It didn't fit, and it was their No. 1 evidence.''
When Sima asked the class if spousal abuse should have been considered as an issue in the case, particularly if it may have happened only once, the class roared its approval, with junior Scott Barkee commenting, ''once is too much.'' Their teacher later observed that it was doubtful these kids would have given the issue any thought, had it not been for the Simpson trial.
Despite its location in a predominantly white suburb, the nearly 3,000-member student body at El Camino Real is racially diverse: 42 percent white, 32 percent Latino, 10 percent African-American, and 13 percent Asian-American. More than one-third of the students are bused from the inner city of Los Angeles every day.
Teacher Jack Koenig says the kids get along well. Fights rarely break out along racial lines, a harmony he attributes to the schoolwide emphasis on communication and openness. Koenig points to such innovations as a group of students and teachers, dubbed ''The Communicators,'' which meets regularly to discuss and correct rumors and innuendos being passed around the school.
Colleague Ron Sima runs the group, and he says one of the keys to good communication is to ''differentiate between fact and opinion.'' The Simpson trial was a perfect forum for the students to sharpen that skill, and Sima says his students spent 35 percent of their current-events discussion on the Simpson trial.
While one may wonder how the students kept abreast of a trial that aired while they were supposedly in school, the answer is simple. Both Koenig's and Sima's students said they watched the evening television newscasts, listened to the radio, and yes, read the newspapers. In short, they developed and used additional skills they'll need to participate in adult society - what every teacher hopes a student will get from his or her class.