After 15 years, during which time they took the Marshfield High
School mock trial program from an after-school activity to a fully
accredited course at the high school and one of the state's most
successful programs, teacher Neil Kasten and Attorney Coach Don
Gibson have decided to step aside.
Kasten will retire after 30 years of teaching. Gibson, a
personal injury trial lawyer at Driscoll & Gibson in
Marshfield, is leaving to devote more time to his law practice.
"It's been a wonderful experience," Gibson said. "It's
remarkable how talented these students are. I have to pinch myself
sometimes to remind myself that they are just high school students,
not college or law students."
The high school mock trial tournament, which is administered by
the MBA with support from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation,
attracts teams from more than 130 public, private, parochial and
charter high schools across the commonwealth.
But Marshfield, despite being home to Daniel Webster, one of the
nation's greatest legal scholars and orators, did not have a team
until Kasten came to the school in 1999.
"I've always been a political junkie," said Kasten, a middle
school English teacher. "History, politics, the law, all
In Springfield, where Kasten taught previously, he started an
after-school mock trial program with the help of the county
district attorney, who was also the father of one of his students.
When Kasten came to Marshfield in 1999, he asked for permission to
start a similar after-school program at the high school. Not
knowing any local attorneys, he got Gibson's name and asked him to
become the team's attorney coach.
"They were looking for someone with trial experience," Gibson
said. "I didn't know Neil, had never been involved in the mock
trial program, but I said, 'OK.' I enjoy high school students and
teaching, and am very committed to this community."
The students met once a week after school in Gibson's office. It
was not an instant success, or even a gradual success. The team did
not win a single trial for five years. Many times the group almost
disbanded. Parental donations, including an anonymous $25,000 gift,
kept the program going.
The breakthrough came in 2005. The team finally won a trial, and
advanced all the way to the "Sweet 16" in the state tournament.
"When we got to the Sweet 16, I knew if we were going to grow,
we had to meet more often," Kasten said.
That summer he wrote a curriculum that tied the mock trial
program to a high school class, and won school board approval to
make "Courtroom and the Law" a fully accredited course at the high
school, one of the few, if not the only, accredited mock trial high
school courses in the state.
The year-long class, which meets for 90 minutes every six days,
as well as three hours every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., has
become one of the most popular at the high school, open to freshmen
"The kids put in over 100 hours for two credits," Kasten said.
"They are incredibly dedicated. There's a waiting list to get into
This past year, 46 students signed up for 31 slots. Two years
ago, 76 signed up.
Since becoming a fully accredited high school course in 2006,
Marshfield's mock trial team has advanced to the Sweet 16 every
year. The team has now reached the Final Four five years in a
In addition to participating in the state tournament, the
Marshfield team was also invited to a national high school mock
trial tournament at Yale University. Marshfield also fielded a team
at the Garden City Invitational in Newton.
"We had 20 trials last year," Kasten said. "That's like five
years of courtroom experience in one year for these kids."
Gibson teaches the students just like he was taught "back in the
Students stand when they speak, argue and present points firmly
but politely, refer to fellow students as "my esteemed colleague,"
learn to disagree without being disagreeable, think on their feet,
and take different positions.
For his part, Kasten likes to stir the pot. "I'm quite
controversial in the classroom," he said. "I'll take a position out
in left field, then go to the other extreme to stir up controversy.
I like the kids to be able to think outside the box. A courtroom
and the law does just that. You may have to defend someone who may
be guilty, but that's our system - use your gifts, the law to help
a person survive."
Matt McDonough, a local attorney and Marshfield selectman, also
volunteers with the program.
Nine students are on a team. They must learn different roles:
witness, attorney, plaintiff and defendant. As they advance through
a tournament, they may not know what side they must represent until
only a few minutes before the trial begins.
Not surprisingly, many of Marshfield's mock trial alumni have
gone on to law school and legal careers. But the class attracts
more than just prospective lawyers.
"We had a business student take the class because he wanted to
improve his small group skills," Gibson said. "A young woman who
wanted to be a missionary took the class because she wanted to
learn to speak and connect with people. The kids are not just
regurgitating some learning. We're teaching really transferable
skills: self esteem, self confidence, public speaking. What they're
learning is tangible. They can touch and feel and experience it.
We're not just teaching theory. We're actually practicing it."
The community has also embraced the mock trial program.
The team's end of the year awards night, held at the Daniel
Webster estate, attracts everyone from the superintendant, faculty,
school administration, the local law community, local politicians,
the media and, of course, students, including recent graduates and
parents. Up until two years ago, when the program finally received
school board funding, local donations kept the program running.
"This program is so much larger than just the high school,"
Gibson said. "I bump into people at the bank, grocery store, the
cleaners, and instead of talking sports, they want to talk about
the mock trial team. The radio station follows us. It's a real
community effort, and one of the reasons why it has been so
The high school has not announced who will replace Kasten and
Gibson, but has assured students and the community the class and
team will continue.
"I feel we all have an obligation to help with the education and
rearing of all of the students in our community," said Gibson of
his 15 years of pro bono work with the Marshfield High School mock
trial program. "Whenever we can do some community good, we all