Kids in the Court

BY EMILY BEARG

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Imagine a four-foot-ten seventh grade girl standing behind a podium in the Ames Moot Courtroom, before a Harvard Law School professor-judge, declaring curtly to a long-winded witness on the stand, “Stick to the question! Yes or no?”

Seem like a twisted version of the Ames Competition?

In fact, every year for eight weeks, law students in the HLS Kids in the Court program teach such crafty courtroom tactics, along with basic principles of legal argument, to seventh and eighth graders from Cambridge Public Schools.

Conceived by Prof. Charles Ogletree and the principal of Agassiz School on Oxford Street, the program culminates in a mock trial at Harvard where the middle school students are responsible for opening and closing statements, direct and cross examinations, and playing the roles of witnesses, with 1Ls as jurors and professors as judges.

According to last year’s co-director, 3L Karen Abravenel, “The program is designed to complement the eighth grade curriculum on the Constitution. Kids in the Court aims to introduce students to the basic structure of the legal system, by providing a hands-on experience in trial practice and procedure.”

This year, five middle schools in Cambridge are participating in the program, with a total of eight seventh and eighth grade classes.

“The classes correspond with class time for the students’ social studies or history-type program,” said 2L Rex Lee, director of the program this year. Four to six law students run each class, allowing for individualized attention for the students.

The HLS teachers leave a question box in their classrooms so that if students have questions, they can submit them anonymously to the box.

“When we arrive, the first ten minutes of class we’ll go through the questions,” Lee said. Questions range from “What is law school like?” to “How much money will you make?” to “Why are prior bad acts inadmissible in court?”

“The kids are so much smarter than you anticipate them to be,” Lee said. “A lot of the fun of the program comes from seeing them use their analytic abilities.”

The curriculum has been developed and revised by teams of law students involved in the program over the years, although individual student teachers have a large degree of independence in structuring their respective classes, said 2L Pantea Yashar, who taught classes last year.

“We began by establishing a rapport with the students,” Yashar said. The first few classes consist of teaching a basic legal vocabulary and how to make arguments. A classic example she used was to ask about the implications of a law stating “no vehicles in the park.” What about bicycles? Ambulances?

At about the third or fourth week, the student teachers introduce the fictional case that will be used at the mock trial. During preparation for trial, the teachers address the necessary legal concepts as they arise.

“We are purely teaching them what they see on Law and Order or The Practice,” Lee said. “We aren’t teaching them the various nuances of holdings.”

For the past two years, the case has been an action brought against the local school system by the parents of a high school girl who was refused a tryout for the boys’ soccer team. The case leads to discussions about the equal protection clause, how Title IX operates and hypothetical applications, in an effort to “spark a debate and get their discourse started,” Lee said.

Most of the students are assigned a role in the trial. During the sessions leading up to the mock trial the HLS teachers usually break the class into groups to teach basic trial advocacy skills and allow the students to practice their roles.

“In our class, a couple of people weren’t comfortable with it, and sometimes you have to help people get over their insecurities,” Yashar said. “But by the actual day, they were all really pumped and excited and getting into it.”

“They were so passionate about doing a good job,” Yashar added. “Students who were really scared at first blew us away at the trial.”

As to the impact of the program on the students, Yashar said that “obviously people take from it different amounts… but they do all realize that laws can be read in different ways and what lawyers do.”

“We try to keep up a level of objectivity,” Lee said. “We tell them the good and bad things about the law.”

Lee hopes to expand the program next year to include more Cambridge schools, as well as some schools in Boston.

According to Abravenel, many law schools participate in the “Street Law” program developed at Georgetown Law School that is a national, year-long curriculum for high school students. In addition, the State Bar also runs extracurricular mock trial programs in Massachusetts high schools. However, there are very few programs like Kids in the Court that operate at the middle-school level, particularly during class time.

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