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What to do if you’re stopped by the police

When Lincoln High School government teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling teaches his Tacoma students about the Constitution, he adds a few lessons on survival skills.

He wants them to understand their rights under the constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by police. But he also wants his students to know how those powerful words can play out in real life.

“I encourage them to assert their rights in an informed, responsible manner,” Gibbs-Bowling said. “What I try to teach kids is that, whenever they engage with police, they should maintain their cool. Keep calm. And end the engagement as soon as possible.”

Gibbs-Bowling’s status as Washington state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year has thrust his online personal blog, where he posted about his Fourth Amendment lessons in April, into a national spotlight among educators. Following recent shootings by police officers of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, he tweeted about it again.

“It’s been shared a bunch of times,” he said, noting that he has heard from teachers in at least four other states who have pledged to use the syllabus in their classrooms this year.

Gibbs-Bowling said Lincoln kids — 75 percent students of color and nearly 80 percent living in poverty — are the demographic that’s most likely to have adverse encounters with police officers. That’s why he wants them to be informed.

“It’s not like it’s me going on a progressive, libertarian screed,” he said. “This is making content I’m required to teach authentic and relevant.”

Gibbs-Bowling says he’s not anti-police. His brother is a police officer, and Gibbs-Bowling once toyed with the idea of becoming a State Patrol trooper before deciding on a teaching career. In his handout to students, he points out that “police work is very difficult and they make choices day-to-day that have life-altering impacts.”

But he says he feels compelled to speak out about abuses of power by police officers.

“I believe there is a legitimate role for law enforcement in making society a better place,” he said. “But bad cops don’t do that.”

In his April blog post, Gibbs-Bowling recounts some of his childhood experiences as a black kid growing up in Tacoma. He talks about having to carry a receipt for a new bike his parents bought him, because he was repeatedly stopped by police officers who wanted to ask if he had stolen it. He also relates how, at age 15, while he was waiting for a bus, he was tackled by police and had a gun pointed at his face because “like countless other black men, I matched the description.”

He says he still gets pulled over by cops multiple times per year.

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