Marshfield Mock Trial coaches retiring after 15 years with program

Issue July 2014 By Linda Goodspeed

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 connect."

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 through seniors.

"The kids put in over 100 hours for two credits," Kasten said. "They are incredibly dedicated. There's a waiting list to get into the class."

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 row.

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 day."

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 successful."
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 benefit."