Published: May 3, 2013

Before University of Colorado Law School students began visiting her classroom last fall, Crystal Perez, a ninth grade student at York International School in Thornton, had never been anywhere in the United States outside of Colorado and had no interest in the law. Just eight months later, Perez had earned a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete against high school students from across the country in the National Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition.

Perez was one of six students from underserved Colorado high schools selected to represent the Colorado Marshall-Brennan Project, a constitutional literacy program run by Colorado Law’s Byron R. White Center, at the national competition in D.C. in April. This moot court competition is just one piece of the Colorado Marshall-Brennan Project, which sends law students into high school classes during the school year to partner with social studies teachers in teaching about the Constitution. The project has touched more than 500 students in 10 different high schools since Professor Melissa Hart, director of the White Center, launched the project in 2012.

In the weeks before the national competition, the high school students practiced three times a week under the guidance of their Colorado Law student coaches. The moot court problem dealt with how the First Amendment applies to student speech on a school-sponsored website, and required the high school students to master difficult legal concepts and a detailed trial court record.

“It was inspiring to see the time and effort that both the high school students and their law school coaches put into preparing for this event,” Hart said. “The payoff in terms of the high school students' deeper understanding of the constitutional issues and their ability to make compelling arguments using both the facts and the law was exceptional.”

All of the high school student competitors presented three oral arguments, each fifteen minutes long, on the first day of the competition. While all six Colorado students delivered outstanding arguments, Perez was the only Coloradan to make it through to the semi-final round on the second day of the competition. For Perez, being the lone Colorado representative was bitter sweet.

“When I found out I was a semi-finalist I was really happy and excited,” Perez said, “but I wanted my teammates to get in. They all worked really hard, too.”

As one of twenty-four students to make it to the semi-final round, Perez had the honor of arguing in a courtroom of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. During her argument, Perez fielded a barrage of complicated questions from a panel of three volunteer judges. Although Perez wanted to impress the judges, she was most concerned about making her family and teammates proud.

“I knew what the judges were looking for, but I was most worried about not letting my family down and all of Colorado down.” Perez explained.

Perez was not among the four finalists, but she still had the experience of a lifetime.

“Before this I had never been anywhere in the U.S. outside of Colorado and I had never been on an airplane,” Perez said. “This experience helped me get out of my shell and explore.”

In addition to seeing a different part of the country, participating in the Colorado Marshall-Brennan Project allowed Perez to build strong friendships with other high school students in Colorado.

“During the trip I really got to know my teammates and we brought back a lot of great memories from D.C.” Perez said. “Because of the trip, we created a great bond that we’ll carry with us our whole life. These people became my family.”

When asked what the best part of the program was, Perez reveals her new appreciation for the law.

“Kids always say ‘it’s a free country,’” Perez explains, “but there are limits and this program teaches us about our nation and how it works more exactly. It is important for students to learn what we can and can’t do under the law.”