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Tacoma teacher gives lessons to high school students in police de-escalation

Courtesy of Washington OSPI / Bobbi Stockwell
Nathan Bowling, Washington state's Teacher of the Year in 2016

After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri two years ago, Nathan Bowling's students came to him for guidance.

Bowling is a teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, where he teaches AP government and politics.

"Mike Brown had just graduated. He's their age. There was just a panic in the room: what if this happens to me? What if this happens to someone we know?" Bowling told KUOW's Bill Radke.

So he decided to bring the issues surrounding law enforcement and communities of color into the classroom.

One week of his course focuses on the issue. During that time he shows a video with 10 pieces of advice for dealing with law enforcement, like keeping one's hands in sight and refusing illegal searches.

They also role-play being pulled over by police officers and model what behaviors to do and those to avoid.

This has not gone over well with everyone. 

"I've gotten some pushback from members of the law enforcement community," Bowling said. "The things I'm talking about are serious. And some people who are defensive about the work they do, don't necessarily agree with everything I'm saying. But for me, I'm operating from the perspective of my students. What do my students need?"

Bowling, who is Washington state's teacher of the year, also points out he has had a long and complex relationship with law enforcement. Before he became a teacher, he considered starting a career as a police officer. His two favorite TV shows are The Wire and Law and Order: SVU. 

"I love police work," he said; but he's also had negative experiences with it.

When he was 15, he matched the description of a man a police officer was searching for. Bowling said the officer jumped out of his car, pulled a gun on him and searched him. "So that's total context I have in my head."

He said that the week that focuses on these issues in his classroom is the most important lesson he teaches all year. The students are even more engaged. "This is the one thing I teach that could save a life."

He specifically advises students in de-escalation skills when they are confronted by police.

"Now is it weird to be saying to a 17, 18-year-old: 'It's your job to put this grown man or grown woman at ease'? Yeah. But if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.

"If one of my students was lost to law enforcement, given my charge and given my content, that would haunt me forever," he said.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012