True Crime & Criminal Investigation Sparks Student Interest Mark McDowell Impacts Students through Criminal Justice

True Crime & Criminal Investigation Sparks Student Interest

Mark McDowell Impacts Students through Criminal Justice

Deidra Bowling-Meade

The Ashland Beacon


Did you know one in three Americans say they consume true crime content?  The true crime genre is being fueled with new docuseries and crime books constantly being released.  Some might question the validity of this content and wonder if it is doing more harm than good.  Mark McDowell, a retired Ashland Police Department Commander and current Security Specialist with Ashland Independent Schools, is using his experience and knowledge with criminal justice to give students at Paul Blazer High School the insight into a career with criminal justice, as well as encourage students to apply critical thinking and communication skills. 


This past week, students in McDowell’s Criminal Investigation class were given an experience of a lifetime by getting to have a virtual meet with Special Agent Tammy Lee from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Lee was a lead investigator on the Chris Watts murder case and part of the Netflix documentary “The Family Next Door.” Chris Watts was found guilty of murdering his wife and children in 2018.  

The opportunity to speak with Special Agent Lee occurred due to McDowell’s diligence in wanting the best for his students. McDowell remarked, “I have a saying, ‘ask not, get not.’ I sent Agent Lee an email before Christmas break, and she replied to me over the break. It was an early Christmas present knowing my students would get a very keen insight into the crime we were studying. There were so many unknowns for this case because it unfolded so rapidly. Agent Lee was on the front line of the investigation, and it was so interesting to have this live stream interview with my class. The kids had some really interesting questions to ask of her on the case.” 

Eleventh grade student Baker Elam made some interesting observations from watching the documentary and speaking virtually with Agent Lee. Elam remarked, “There were many things I found interesting about Agent Lee’s perception of events that she talked to us about during the livestream. One thing I found very interesting was when she said that she and some other agents were watching the interview that Chris Watts had on his porch, and they started suspecting that he was the one who made Shanann and her kids disappear because of his mannerisms and the way he was acting. It made me wonder how differently this case would have been if Chris had decided not to do that interview, and how much longer the case would have drawn out. Another thing I found interesting was that one of the agents didn’t want to let Chris’ father in the interrogation room because it seemed to me that his father was a big reason that Chris did a partial confession.”  Elam asked Agent Lee, “Do you think that if Chris’ father wasn’t with him in the interview room that he would have confessed?  And if so, how much longer would it have taken him to confess?"

Julia Wallace, who is in the 10th grade, commented, “The highlights of our visit with Agent Tammy Lee was once in a lifetime thanks to Mr. McDowell.  Agent Lee helped us understand what it would feel like if we were under the same investigation on Christopher Watts. She gave a clear description on how Chris acted through interviews and everything he had slipped up on through this case. Agent Lee gave her own thoughts on things that weren’t clearly answered by Chris. For example, why the bodies were buried opposite from each other or if she thought the girls were already dead when Chris killed Shannan in the house. There was a lot of insight she had given us, and she was very brave to talk to us about this after going through such a horrifying experience with this case. Agents Lee and Coder had an amazing report on this case, as well. We wouldn't have gotten the notes we needed in this case without their excellent work.”

The news that McDowell’s class would be live streaming with Agent Lee spread throughout Blazer’s campus.  Other classes and teachers joined the live event or watched the recording.  One of  Blazer’s English teachers, Rose McCallister, was thrilled with the opportunity and shared her thoughts: “As a true crime buff, Mr. McDowell invited me to view the live stream discussion regarding the Chris Watts case. It was remarkable that students were able to connect with such a well-known investigator and an internationally recognized case.  This was an amazing real-life experience for students who are interested in criminal justice as a career. Agent Tammy Lee did a wonderful job presenting information from this case and was able to share the process, as well as her personal experience. She also shared that she has a high school aged child, and she recognizes the impact experiences such as this has with students. She was incredibly inviting and open to sharing her knowledge. The students were given the opportunity to ask questions, and I was impressed with the level of critical thinking that was shown by Mr. McDowell’s students. As educators, we always want students to be able to connect and reason with topics in the classroom. This connection was well portrayed in this experience…an experience I’m sure these students will always remember.”

Junior, Rachel Tackett, shared the impact this experience had upon her, “Getting to listen to Agent Lee talk was by far the highlight of my day. As someone who hopes to work in the BAU, getting to talk to someone in such an important case was absolutely incredible.”

Throughout the Criminal Investigation course, students have studied various criminal cases to determine if the investigations were done thoroughly, if additional questions remain, what was done correctly and what could have been done differently.  The level of critical thinking application in this course is an interesting way for students to learn skills, which actually can apply to other subject areas such as history and English. The course also sparks an interest in possible job opportunities for students.   McDowell explained, “On my dry erase board in class I have the 4th Amendment on one side and ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ on the other. It’s been there since school started. These are the basic questions investigators must answer before a prosecutor will take a case. There are hoops to jump through to ensure suspect rights are not violated.”

The students have studied the OJ Simpson case, Chris Watts case and currently the Tupac case.  Each case provides a different view on criminal justice for students to examine. McDowell described what he wanted the class to see from each case: “The Watts case unfolded quickly; you can read the entire case file, all 1,690 pages, on the internet. Evidence in that case was carefully identified and collected to ensure its integrity. The constitutional rights of the suspect were protected from the time the first officer arrived on the scene up to Watts’ confession. Agent Lee told us one of the reasons the investigators followed up with Watts in prison, was to fill in some blanks on some finite details and try and see where they could improve on their management of the case.

The OJ case, on the other hand, was marred by sloppy evidence collection and documentation. Ask any of my students if they know who Furhman is and what he’s noted for in the OJ case- they’ll tell you. And even the trial- LAPD was on trial- not OJ. Police investigators have so many more tools today to help the prosecutor prove a case, especially with the acceptance of DNA in criminal trials.

 Tupac will be our next case study- it remains unsolved today. It’s also a 90’s case, and I want to show the kids how this was marred from the beginning by a moving crime scene and witnesses who refused to cooperate and get involved with the investigation.”

 McDowell’s knowledge of criminal justice and personal experience with public safety is unmatched. McDowell actually started his public safety career in 1987 at Boyd County 9-1-1. In 1989, he started with the Ashland Police Department as a patrolman. McDowell worked as a detective in the Criminal Investigations Section in 1993. He was promoted to Sergeant in 2001 where he worked in the Patrol Division, promoted to Lieutenant in 2009 and then Major in 2011. McDowell retired from APD in 2017, after 28 ½ years service as Commander of the Technical Services Division. In the fall of 2017, McDowell was sworn in as a part time deputy with the Boyd County Sheriff's Department. In the spring of 2018, after the Parkland HS shooting in Florida, he started working as a security specialist with the Ashland Independent School District. For the last four years at Paul Blazer High School, students have been able to sign up for McDowell’s classes in the criminal justice pathway.

McDowell loves sharing his passion with Blazer students. McDowell commented, “There are many career paths in the Criminal Justice Field. I share law enforcement, courts, corrections, support services such as forensic lab techs, intelligence, the whole spectrum of career paths in the CJ field. Many students are not sure which career path they want to pursue.  Some may realize this is not what they expected, but it still gives each of them a unique insight into the criminal justice field. I hope this course sparks an interest in students to seek a career, not just a job, in making their community safer for families.”

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