Partnership with Northwest Academy of Law Spans Mentoring, Mock Trial Coaching, and Support for Peace Summit

Law students from Professor Inazu's seminar prepare
Northwest students for their final arguments in a
First Amendment debate.

Washington University law students are taking their commitment to public service to the next level through a growing partnership with Northwest Academy of Law. With the assistance of law faculty and through their own initiatives, law students are reaching out to the inner-city St. Louis high school students to provide mentoring and law-related educational experiences. 

Every week this fall, 15 law students have made the 20-minute trek to Northwest as part of Professor John Inazu’s seminar, The First Amendment in Schools. Since 2008, Professor Katherine Goldwasser has supervised law practicum students through a combined teaching and mentoring program she created at the school. It’s a logical partnership as Northwest is a law-themed “choice” school, with a law-related curriculum, moot courtroom, and law library. 

Meanwhile, other students are part of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project at the school. Since fall 2011, through a practicum supervised by Professor Jane Moul, two law students each semester have taught students at Northwest through a class that meets at least two, and sometimes three, times a week. The project takes civics education for public school students beyond its basic requirements by teaching students about their constitutional rights. (An expansion to the program was proposed as part of the Clinton Global Initiative-University last spring.) 

Next term, second-year law student Aissatou Barry, a member of Inazu’s class, will start preparing Northwest students to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a national mock-trial competition. 

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Barry attended junior high at the Crown School for Law and Journalism, a largely African American public school in New York. While there, she met with attorneys in a mentoring program who gave her confidence and encouraged her to become a lawyer. She sees her work at Northwest as her way of returning the favor. 

“The students are so smart,” she says. “They know how to apply cases to real-life situations, and they have good analytical skills. It helps their self-esteem to know that they are successfully doing work that would challenge any law student.” 

Unfortunately, the students—juniors and seniors—also face significant challenges outside of school, Barry says. Some of them have children of their own. Some are caring for siblings or parents. Many work outside of school. And, a few weeks ago, some lost a friend to a shooting near the school. 

“They have a lot going on in the community,” Barry says. As a result, attendance in her mock trial training varies from week to week. “Mock trial is sometimes put on the back burner,” she says. “But they know this is a huge opportunity. It’s a chance to go to Washington, D.C., for kids who may not have even been south of Delmar Boulevard. 

“This is an example of Washington University taking care of St. Louis,” Barry adds. “People say that it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to create a village, too.” 

On November 8, members of the Washington University “village” will reach out to Northwest again by participating in an “Urban Peace Summit” at the school. A number of Washington University School of Law and Brown School students and faculty have been working behind the scenes with the school to prepare for the summit. 

“The students and staff of Northwest want to highlight positive responses to the challenge of urban crime,” Inazu says. “The summit will allow high school voices to be heard in a way they haven’t been heard before. We want to forge even more connections between Washington University and Northwest by getting more law students and faculty to see the high school and facilitating more opportunities for mentoring and partnership.” 

The Urban Peace Summit comes on the heels of a recent “Urban Crime Summit.” With feedback from Professors C.J. Larkin and Karen Tokarz; Washington University Civil Rights & Community Justice Clinic law students Noble Freeman, Carol Jansen, Katy Swiss; and alumnus Ilunga Kalala, JD ’13, the Northwest students wrote an open letter about the Urban Crime Summit that was published on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website. “The students came out of the Urban Crime Summit wanting to offer a constructive response,” Inazu says. 

In that spirit, Northwest crafted an agenda for the Urban Peace Summit that combines short messages from representatives of the city and the community with a more extended panel discussion. After a welcome from Valerie Carter-Thomas, the principal of Northwest Academy, presenters will include representatives from the attorney general’s office, mayor’s office, city police department, and state legislature, as well as local aldermen, judges, and community leaders.  

 The summit will end with some reflections by Northwest students. Northwest also plans to have booths from various community organizations set up outside the auditorium following the formal part of the summit.  

“The best thing about working with the high school students is that it bridges the gap between just hearing about the school and actually seeing the students and the teachers who embody it,” says third-year law student Rebecca Morton, the student leader of Marshall-Brennan who taught last fall at Northwest. “I’ve really enjoyed being able to teach and utilize practical legal skills to break down complex concepts for a high school audience.  It’s also just been great to be actively involved in the community outside law school.” 

In the meantime, Barry is focused on fundraising for the mock trial competition. Money is needed not only for transportation, but also to help pay for dress clothes for students. 

“We’re looking for funding from a variety of sources,” she says. “We’re applying for grants from the university and outside of the university, seeking funding from the United Way, and reaching out to local law firms.” 

The law school will also be holding a Marshall Brennan Fundraising Dinner in the Crowder Courtyard on Wednesday, November 13. Students will be tabling the week of November 4 to sell tickets to the dinner. For students, the minimum donation is $15, while for non-students it is $30. 

Turning to her own professional goals, Barry says that she wants to do “work that is mentally challenging, like international litigation or regulatory work. But I love this experience of working with the kids, because I also want to dedicate a lot of time to public service and maybe government work.” 

“I love St. Louis,” Barry adds. “I would love to stay here and help it realize its potential—there is so much to be done, but it just takes a few people to care.” 

By Timothy J. Fox