JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Students stood together on the House floor in the state Capitol, raising their right hands and swearing to protect the Constitution.
They'd converged on the Capitol from 12 schools around Missouri, including Fulton High School, to help kickoff the Constitution Project competition. During the main part of the competition in October, they'll investigate, write about and try a mock crime. On Wednesday, however, the focus was on legislation, with students debating a bill.
"It's a hands-on experience in investigation, courtroom proceedings and journalism," said Jenna Brown, a social studies teacher at Fulton High School and co-sponsor of the Constitution Project group.
This is the school's third year participating in the competition, which was instituted by the Missouri court system in 2013. At least one of the five FHS students attending the event has participated all three years, Brown said.
She clarified the five in attendance Wednesday are a part of the larger team at FHS.
Aside from learning about the Constitution and the systems in place to uphold it, students also get hands-on experience in potential careers.
"They're able to work in jobs in fields they might want to see later on," Brown said.
Leading up to the competition, students work with mentors in the community. The competition team is divided into three subgroups: investigators, journalists and courtroom (prosecutors, defense attorneys, etc.).
Judge Carol England of the 13th Judicial Circuit mentored the courtroom students, and Maj. Roger Rice, of the Fulton Police Department, partnered with the investigators. Brown said the mentors have embraced their role.
"At first, when we asked them, they were just getting the hang of it," Brown said. "Now they're like, 'When are we starting? Where's our team?'"
"We do our own mock-crime scenarios," Fulton senior Jessi Donze said. "Maj. Rice has this paper cut out he puts down. We have to figure out what happened, talk to witnesses, talk to our journalists."
The students learn real police procedures and crime-solving techniques, she said.
"We have to do things like get a bullet casing into an evidence bag without touching it," Donze added.
Her own interests definitely lie in the investigation department. She's considering a career in the field, and said she likes solving puzzles and helping people.
"I'm going to remember most of this, honestly," she said. "It's teaching us that our job isn't to put people in jail, it's to bring justice."
Before the competition began, students heard from speakers like Missouri first lady Sheena Greitens, Judge Douglas Gaston and Army veteran Rob Canine.
Canine, who served in Iraq before being severely injured in an ambush, told the students about the importance of upholding the Constitution. As he pointed out, he nearly died for it.
"(Armed forces members) fight for us, we fight for each other and we fight for the Constitution," Canine said. "We also fight for you guys."
Students at the event were designated as either senators or representatives. Their job was to debate, suggest amendments for and ultimately vote on House Bill 9176. The bill would entitle any Missouri student who graduates from an accredited high school to four tuition-free years at an accredited Missouri college.
They were scored on their participation, with those scores affecting school standings at the beginning of the main competition in October, team co-sponsor and English teacher Cassie Elam said. If they win at the district level, the team can advance to regionals, where it can qualify for the state competition.
"They're learning to debate in a way they're listening and reacting," Elam said. "They're thinking on their feet."
Fulton senior Eric Lane took an active role in the debate, standing up early and passionately arguing in support of HB 9176.
"It was nerve-wracking, of course," he said on the way to the Senate floor. "I was mostly trying to break the ice."
He is interested in investigations, he said. This is his third year competing, after a friend suggested he join the team.
"I've learned to be vocal, more than anything, and say what you have to say," Lane said.
Elam said students benefit from participation in the Constitution Project.
"I wish we'd had this when I was a kid," she said. "I've found their confidence has grown. They're more willing to participate in school events and voice their opinions."