In-class courtroom drama teaches kids about drug abuse

Minneapolis' lawyers volunteer to help students prepare for mock trials

High school students wear black robes and pound actual gavels in makeshift courtrooms as part of Minneapolis Public Schools' new health series, &#8220Class Action.”

The 10-week program, which started this fall at Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St., will be incorporated into the regular health curriculum at all Minneapolis public high schools. It is based on six mock civil trials that center on alcohol and drug problems.

Students will learn not only about the dangers of substance abuse but also about the structure and vocabulary of the legal system, as well as critical thinking skills.

Volunteer legal professionals will advise students on their cases. They'll talk about how actual court trials work and what courtrooms are like. Law students will explain what a deposition is, for instance, while attorneys will instruct kids on how to build an oral argument. Lawyers will also describe some of their most interesting moments in court.

One case involves a family who celebrate a father's job promotion with champagne. A teenage son and his friend join in the drinking, then naively grab the car keys. The spontaneous ride ends in a crash and the friend is brain-damaged for life.

In a pilot classroom at Washburn, students insisted on having bailiffs in the courtroom-classroom to handle a rowdy audience member. Their interest in preserving the realism of the courtroom was a turning point for Washburn students, many of whom had revealed their distaste for lawyers in questionnaires completed earlier.

Marta Chou, an attorney with the Downtown Minneapolis firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi LLP and chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Diversity Committee, is the liaison between the schools and the legal practitioners who coordinates volunteer legal professionals for the project, said it's a good mentoring opportunity for the kids and can also &#8220expose the legal field in a positive light to some students who may not have had a good outlook on it. It goes beyond what's on TV and shows [lawyers] as real people.”

Chou said that the program is also a unique opportunity for law professionals. Already, it has received &#8220tremendous support” as volunteers came forward from both the private and public sectors, from both large and small firms. She said that the many law professionals of color involved are sending the message to students that they, too, can be successful.

The University of Minnesota developed the Class Action program in partnership with Hazelden, the chemical addiction treatment center in Center City. The program is funded by a federal Safe Schools Healthy Students grant and also supported by Achieve!Minneapolis, the city's health department, Minnesota State Bar Association and the local legal community. Much of the research for the nationally recognized program was conducted in Minnesota and has been implemented in Los Angeles public schools.

To volunteer, contact Marta Chou,

349-8569 or [email protected]. For more information about Minneapolis Public Schools, check out www.mpls.k12.mn.us.