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Maslon mock trial program takes on education gap

A Minneapolis law firm has joined the effort to reduce the education gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota.

Maslon LLP of Minneapolis launched Maslon UPLIFT: Legal Institute for Teens last fall at St. Louis Park Middle School. The mock trial program has attracted 30 eighth-graders and several volunteer lawyers and judges, according to Maslon UPLIFT director Catherine Ahlin-Halverson.

About 45 percent of the school’s 1,040 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are students of color, noted assistant principal Jason Boll. Students meet every Tuesday after school with Ahlin-Halverson, retired Court of Appeals Judge Edward Toussaint and Cooper Ashley, an of counsel attorney at Maslon.

Other volunteer lawyers from the Public Defender’s Office, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, the Latino legal community and from Maslon have cycled through to introduce the students to the different ways that the law affects their lives and the different pursuits that lawyers have in the Twin Cities community.

Students have also been learning about why the justice system exists, why it’s organized the way it is, who the players are, and about how a courtroom and a trial work.

“We’re trying to give these kids the opportunity to learn about the profession, about criminal justice and the court system, but also really deep, strong speaking skills and analytical skills and to foster a long-term vision for themselves though high school and into college,” Ahlin-Halverson said.

Many middle-schoolers haven’t given any thought to higher education or a career, Boll said.

“There’s the lawyer piece, but there are so many other careers around this that could be applicable,” he added. “We’re really big on racial equity, and this has been totally just a great partnership in that regard. As a middle school, we’re always looking to do some more college and career-readiness stuff.”

Before the holiday break, students learned about hearsay, how to analyze testimony as it’s presented, and how to make a hearsay objection. They also worked on how to organize and draft closing statements and practiced giving closing statements to the group. This month, they’ll get their case and go through its elements, form teams and prepare for the roles they’ll be assigned. Ahlin-Halverson expects a number of additional volunteers to step up from Maslon and the wider legal community to act as coaches for each team.

The mock trial competition is scheduled for March 13 at the University of Minnesota Law School, which has mock courtrooms for the students to use. She anticipates staging two or three mock trials for the same case simultaneously, with friends and families in the audience. Dean Garry Jenkins is scheduled to visit the middle school in February.

“I think they’re going to offer us a wonderful amount of support and show the kids the law school and let them meet students and professors when we go over there,” Ahlin-Halverson said.

Two students have already expressed interest in becoming lawyers, according to student advocate DeAnte Michaud. He mediates disputes among students and teachers, sets up college field trips, schedules guest speakers, and organizes after-school activities — anything to keep the kids engaged inside and outside of school. More important than learning about the law and the court system is just the exposure to something different at an early age, according to Michaud.

“They have to sit around and do math and science all day,” he said, “This gives them a chance to speak their voice and express interest in different things.”

St. Louis Park Middle School has the same achievement gap that the rest of Minnesota schools have, but has invested in racial equity and wanted Maslon UPLIFT to try and reach all of its students, said Ahlin-Halverson, who has a daughter at the school. She hopes the program can return there in September and has begun searching for an additional school to participate.

“It’s my intention that we’ll have two schools next year,” she said. “It’s our goal that the program will grow in terms of the number of students we serve and the number of volunteers who get involved.”

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