JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – It’s a project that has become a staple in Missouri’s Capitol after just six years in existence, and founder Doug Gaston hopes that as it continues, it can be expanded across the state.
Each year, since 2013, 25th Circuit Court Judge Douglas Gaston has put together the Annual Constitution Project, which brings high schoolers from across the state together to compete in an interactive program designed to show them the ins and outs of the legal process.
Gaston first founded the event in his hometown of Houston back in 2011, before growing it to a statewide event in 2013. The statewide competition is comprised of three disciplines: journalism, crime scene investigation and trial advocacy.
The students are graded by professionals in each of those fields while gathering evidence from a mock crime scene, reporting on the findings of the police, and bringing the case to trial. They also get the chance to debate legislation, while receiving insight from professionals. The intent is to submerse the students into the roles of police and detectives, journalists, lawyers, and state lawmakers.
About 250 students from 12 Missouri high schools attended the event at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
The event kicked off on Wednesday with a speech from special guest House Speaker Todd Richardson, who appeared along with fellow state representatives Robert Ross and Travis Fitzwater and Vietnam War veteran Don Hentges, who discussed the sacrifices that have been made to preserve the rights and liberties of American citizens, and their duty to make the best of their lives.
This year, students debated a fictional bill, put together by Gaston, which would allow school officials to search students without any cause if more than five crimes had been committed near the premises.
The event is managed by the Missouri Courts’ Civic Education division and co-sponsored by the various groups that have people volunteer their time and expertise in advising the competition. Those groups include the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Missouri Sheriffs Association, the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, the Missouri Press and Broadcasters Associations, and the Missouri Trial Attorneys and Prosecutors Associations.
Once the competition kicks off in earnest, students head to regional competitions where they investigate mock crime scenes, report on it and try it in court.
In November, the winning teams advance to the statewide finals, as does an all-star team made of the top students in regional competitions whose schools failed to advance. The outstanding performance and outstanding achievement awards given at the end come with scholarships of $1,000 and $500 respectively.
He says the benefit of the program is that, not only are students learning, they’re having fun.
“We kind of sneak it in on them, but they become very knowledgeable with this stuff, and they learn to do it hands on,” he said.
Gaston says that, for now, they’re limited to 12 schools competing, but he hopes to see that expanded in years to come.
“With the current format, and what we have to work with, we have to stick with a manageable number,” he said. “I’m hoping that next year we can start opening that up to more. I would like for any school to be able to adopt it as a class and do it in their school for fun.”
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.