Harris County Street Law Mock Trial Competition

The best time of the Street Law Course is the mock trial competition, typically held at the end of the academic year. During this time the students compete to win as the best mock trial team of the year. The teams the students are in are based on the location they are taking the street law course at, which can vary from community programs to their actual high school. All the students competing are high-school aged.

During the academic year, the students in street law are being taught by 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th year (part-time) law students that attend the University of Houston Law Center. Typically, the students have the street law course two or more times a week. Many of the students in the street law course can take it for high school credit. Throughout the first semester of street law, as street law is a year-long academic course, the students are learning foundational understandings of civil and criminal law. The mock trial problem that the students get is going to be either civil or criminal, but it is unknown until closer to or during the second semester

The curriculum the instructors are teaching the students helps understand which students will be better for which roles during the mock trial competition. For example, if there is a speaking activity that the students need to do. The ones that like to lead the group will more than likely be the lead attorney for the mock trial competition. Another example, if there is an activity that involved bringing out one’s personability and one of the students does that exceptionally well. Then that student will more than likely be considered to hold a witness role, as witnesses need to have unique personalities.

Once the mock trial packet is received, the excitement begins. The next step is to read the entire mock trial packet to get an understanding of the laws being used, facts, jury verdicts, and evidence. During this time students are starting to use their critical thinking skills to analyze how the rules of the law might apply to the facts. All these skills are typically derived from the knowledge the students have gained over the year in the street law course. There are usually two to three witnesses for each side of the case that gave a sworn deposition in the packet. The students understand these witnesses and what their motives, credibility, and intent are in the case. Each one of the witnesses is played by one of the students in the mock trial so it is important to fully understand what the role of the witness is in the case. Additionally, in the case packet are the laws that will be applied in the case, which the students break down and use persuasively towards the facts given for their respective party in the case. The students are also given the jury form to help understand what it is the jury will be measuring to make their final verdict based on how well the case and chief, opening, and closings were presented. Being thorough and effective when presenting the case is of the utmost importance for the students to win.

Next are the attorneys. There can be two or more attorneys for each side. The students must prepare an opening statement, direct and cross-examinations for all witnesses, and a closing argument. Typically, each one of these sections is done by two or more student attorneys. The student attorneys also get a chance to learn courtroom evidentiary proceedings. This allows the student attorneys to have an opportunity to keep out certain types of evidence that might hurt their case. Once at trial, the students dress professionally and put on their case versus the other respective street law locations in Harris County. This is when the countless hours spent prepping for the mock trial, practicing with all witnesses, preparing opening and closings are put on a show. In the mock trial tournament, there are brackets, kind of like March Madness, except it is not single elimination. The brackets are random, and teams are scored by real attorneys and judges who practice in the field. The scores the students receive throughout the first two to three rounds determine which teams will go to the semifinals. It is as simple as the four teams with the highest scored through those first two to three rounds move on. Usually, there are about 12-16 teams in the tournament, so it can get quite competitive. Once the semifinals are concluded the two teams who won that round versus the team, they went against will move on to the finals. The two teams in finals compete for first place and whoever wins is the Harris County Street Law Champion of that academic year. There are awards and trophies/medals awarded for the team that won and individual awards as well for top performances.

The tournament pre-Covid was always held in person and took up an entire day. Post-Covid it has been virtual taking place over two days. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to do it in person back, as it brings everyone together. This is a great time for everyone involved and I believe having this tournament for the street law students gives them a real opportunity to see the value of understanding the law and possibly wanting to have a career in the legal field.

How to Street Law

KIPP Northeast students at 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing at UH Law Center.

An opportunity to bring the knowledge and understanding awaits law students who would like to teach high-school aged children about the law. This opportunity is not a traditional law school course and allows for creativity from the street law students and the instructor. As an instructor you are paired with a local high school or juvenile facility within your county (at least for UH Law Center). You are not paired alone, there will be a teacher or classroom monitor you are paired with as well to aid with the teaching process.

The first time I worked for street law was at KIPP Northeast in fall 2019. At this institution I started with teaching High School students. The first day I might have been a little nervous due to being in law school and had the responsibility of teaching high school students about the law. I was in my 2nd year of law as a part-time student and knew just enough to supposedly make me “a little dangerous.” On that day I decided to establish rules with the classroom, but I thought we would bring in an introduction to how a democracy ideally works. This was a good moment for the students to participate in a voting process. The outcomes were decently accepted, and I figured the class as whole will work well together that year and that they did. At the end of that first day, I asked the students what they would like to learn and get out of the class, most of the students replied with “we want to learn loopholes.” While that made me smile, I knew this was going to be a great group of students. Throughout that first semester we touched on many topics, such as criminal law, family law, contracts, constitutional law, and many other legal topics that were current events.

The next semester, spring 2020, was the fun part as it was time to prepare for a mock trial competition. During the mock trial competition all the high schools and juvenile facilities that have street law instructors for UHLC have our students compete against one another. The mock trial itself can either be a civil or a criminal case and the students are assigned roles from the mock trial packet. Usually there is three to five lawyer roles for each side of the case and two to three witnesses for each side of the case as well. As a law student who never participated in a mock trial at that time, teaching this aspect was something new to me. Yet, I took on this responsibility and did the best to represent the school and the students as they showed plenty of talent. Getting the students to write and prepare for the mock trial was a challenge at first. The rigor and skill it took to read through the mock trial packet was bumpy at first. Once the students were able to understand what the case is about then the part of assigning students to roles was next. After assigning the student roles the class learned and drafted opening statements, directs, cross’s, and closing arguments and it was not as easy as it sounds. Yet, with plenty of support and visual aids the students were able to script out their entire mock trial and now they were just getting ready to perform. When the mock trial competition was two weeks away, I took the students to UHLC to view a hearing held by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. This extremely motivated the students to want to do the mock trial as they saw how it would be when their opportunity arises to advocate for their mock case. A week before the mock trial rounds were going to start the students were on spring break and that is when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country and the mock trial competition was canceled.

I did get another opportunity to teach that upcoming summer 2020 at a juvenile facility in Harris County. During this session I got to have a co-instructor who provided sound information to the students and gave an exciting aspect to the course. This time was quite fun and unique, during that summer the class was 100% virtual. Coming up with lesson plans and connecting with the students was a challenge that is easily overcome by practicing different strategies and figuring out what worked best. A huge benefit of doing the program that summer was every class period afterwards I would meet with the other fellow street law instructors who were teaching at the facility as well. We all discussed what has worked well for the virtual classroom setting and some things that can be done better. Ultimately the students were really engaged with visual aids, videos, and having discussions about the substance of law that was taught and how it may be applied to their lives. The students were able to display true advocacy for certain laws they like or believe should change. The experience gave me an opportunity to carry over everything I learned from the previous semester into the summer and I truly enjoyed the time I spent with the students.

The upcoming fall semester 2020 I got another opportunity to teach at a juvenile facility, but at a different location. The students in this facility came and went often and I never had the same group of students for longer than a month. This did not phase me as it gave me an opportunity to teach the new students the importance of learning the law at their age and the importance of advocating for oneself. This class was still 100% virtual, but there were a couple occasions where I was allowed to go in person. The students appreciated my presence in person and was able to spend some time asking about a higher education and law school. This was also the first semester that I taught with another street law instructor. The co-instructor for the class brought a different perspective than I did, and the students enjoyed both sides. We were able to partner together on the lesson plans and how we wanted to carry out the mock trial competition at the end of the semester. Due to having an always changing group of students, there were plenty of challenges. Yet, there were some rock star students who were able to carry on a bigger task load when it came to the competition date. The students did exceptionally well during the mock trial competition and showed great signs of being a future advocate for themselves.

The following semester, spring 2021, I got an opportunity to teach at a different juvenile facility than the first two. I was extremely excited for this opportunity as I have heard great things about the students here and their ability to grasp legal understanding of a mock trial at a high rate. Once I started with the students, I saw what I had been told right away. The students were extremely brilliant and had an inquisitive mindset towards street law. I think the difference between this school and the other is with the first two institutions I had to introduce the students to what is street law versus this time around the students already had a sound understanding of what the program was. The students were so prepared for the class I had to consistently come up with a different ways of teaching every class. The class was still 100% virtual and I did not get an opportunity to meet the students in person. Yet, the students enjoyed virtual games like crossword puzzles, jeopardy, and trivia games. At this point I was comfortable creating games using the law. I also became comfortable having students lead discussions and having other involved to either support or oppose the information that was being discussed by the student. The students enjoyed visual aids for learning such as videos and music just like the prior classes as well. Being a street law instructor was now becoming a second nature and I truly enjoy it. The students in this program also got the opportunity to participate in a mock trial competition at the end of their semester. The students performed exceptionally well in preparing for the mock trial. On the day of the mock trial the students had an incredible performance and showed a sound understanding of the law. This time around the competition was held virtually on zoom. The way the students performed was extremely well and I am proud of their performance.

I am glad to have had this opportunity at UHLC and look forward to how the street law program will grow in the future. I am glad to have met Professor Marrus, who introduced me to street law. Additionally, every single person that acquainted me in my role as a street law instructor, I thank you!

It’s the little things.

It’s the little things. . .

Many largescale changes must be made to the juvenile justice system.  From limiting law enforcement’s jurisdiction over children to diverting funds to community resources to shutting down detention facilities, there is much that can be done at a high level.  These measures recognize the growing body of science emphasizing the difference between criminal and adolescent behavior while recommending family-oriented and least restrictive models of discipline.  If that is the purpose, what can stakeholders who have direct and immediate contact with children in conflict with the law do now while we wait for legislation to catch up with science?  Could something as simple as access to a radio help?

It seems hard to overstate the importance of music to an adolescent.  Listening to music at a given moment changes the situation, which is an extremely powerful tool, particularly for a young person with limited control over their lives.  Listening to “music (in its different genres, behaviors, and contexts…) [allows adolescents] to capitalize, exercise, and regain a sense of agency.”[1]  When so much of a child’s life is dictated by schedules imposed on them by parents, school administrators, state officials, and others who are generally not accountable to the child, there is precious little with which an adolescent can experiment in their “trajectory toward their empowerment as agents who can create and control several aspects of their own world.”[2] And so, in listening to music, an adolescent can explore their own identity, connect with peers, and regulate mood by building a world “in which they can shout and be silly, [be] fragile and in search of themselves, and make their own, personal, choices.”[3]

When I started teaching Street Law to students in a residential probation facility, one of the first exercises we engaged in was developing class rules and incentives together.  Though I intended the exercise to encourage a spirited back and forth of negotiation, I was surprised by the enthusiasm.  They seemed genuinely excited to have the opportunity to exercise some agency over their environment and the thing they advocated for most was playing music at the beginning of class.  When I asked them to justify getting to listen to music before class as opposed to afterward as a reward, they explained listening to music can help process emotions, reduce anxiety, and improve performance in school.  They even self-imposed limits on the music videos to avoid gratuitous sexual or violent imagery.  Commending them on a job well done, I collected requested songs for approval by probation staff.  It was at that point that a student asked me why it needed to get approved, why they couldn’t just listen to the music they wanted to listen to.  It was striking that of all the highly restricted conditions they were subject to, limitations on music might have been among the most immediately hurtful.  Eventually, the music was approved (so long as it was a radio edit) and the students bought into the class.  But the fear of being judged on their musical tastes and having it censored was an emotionally fraught experience.

That interaction was among the most impactful of my teaching experience so far and it’s been the hardest to relate.  People seem, generally, to accept the idea that the content children consume ought to be regulated.  But, when it comes to music and the teenager, I’m not so certain.  It feels too much like reading a diary or otherwise depriving them of judgment-free self-exploration.  This seems especially cruel and counterproductive when, for better or worse, so many other restrictions on expression and experimentation apply.

Science suggests when a listener has so little control over their external environment, “the music itself becomes important to them; they feel the need for the ‘auditory bubble.’. . . to cope . . . [and] to improve their internal mood to deal with their lack of control over the external situation.”[4] One researcher calls it the “musically extended mind” that enhances internal abilities and affords possibilities for action at the affective, physical, and social levels.[5] Nevertheless, some would argue that kids these days aren’t listening to music with good moral values and with bad language.  Music just isn’t the same as when we were kids.  Of course not!  Music is ephemeral.  But that might be why it is so crucial, particularly for children who are learning how to navigate their time and place.  Furthermore, I’d like to share a point raised by my students.  They knew some words might be “inappropriate” and shouldn’t be said in polite company, but “that’s not the point,” they said.  The songs are about “flexing” or “telling it like it is.” In other words, it’s about “misery sharing”[6] or building confidence by listening to lyrics about overcoming significant obstacles.  To say that their music is inappropriate might sound to them like “your feelings are inappropriate” or otherwise discouraging having confidence, pride, or optimism.

But what about those kids that committed troubling acts of violence, those kids that our system would have removed from their communities to be rehabilitated?  Should they be allowed to listen to music that some may perceive as problematic?  Perhaps a level of censorship is appropriate in certain circumstances.  But music, like anything else, is uniquely understood through the listener’s context and history that influences their ability to identify and understand the musical, social, and political elements contained within.[7]  And so, I am less inclined to censor music based on sensibilities.  Perhaps, instead, it is more appropriate to encourage dialogue through sharing music while permitting solitary listening.  I would speculate that these small gestures of empathy and understanding might make the discipline that much more effective and rehabilitation more likely.[8]

 

 

[1] Saarikallio SH, Randall WM and Baltazar M (2020) Music Listening for Supporting Adolescents’ Sense of Agency in Daily Life. Front. Psychol. 10:2911. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02911

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Krueger, J. (2018). “Music as affective scaffolding,” in Music and Consciousness II: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, eds D. Clarke, R. Herbert, and E. Clarke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[6] Skånland, M. S. (2013). Everyday music listening and affect regulation: the role of MP3 players. Int. J. Qual. Stud. Health Well-Being 8:20595. doi: 10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20595

[7] Christopher M. Ortivez, Understanding Rap Music from the Listener’s Perspective (1997) (M.A. Theses, University of Colorado Denver) (Auraria Library).

[8] P Nieman, S Shea, Canadian Paediatric Society, Community Paediatrics Committee, Effective discipline for children, Paediatrics & Child Health, Volume 9, Issue 1, January 2004, Pages 37–41, https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/9.1.37 (“To be effective, discipline needs to be: 1) given by an adult with an affective bond to the child; 2) consistent, close to the behaviour needing change; 3) perceived as “fair” by the child; 4) developmentally and temperamentally appropriate; and 5) self-enhancing, i.e., ultimately leading to self-discipline.”)