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Hazelwood parents unsatisfied with school officials' answers

City school officials offered few answers to Hazelwood Elementary/Middle parents during a contentious meeting Thursday about an employee accused of impregnating a 15-year-old and misrepresenting himself as a child therapist.

Separately, the city school board chairman said in an interview that members would scrutinize the system's process for verifying potential employees' credentials. The incident marks the third time under city schools CEO Andrés Alonso's administration that employees have apparently misrepresented their credentials.

"It certainly is going to be a point of conversation," said board chairman Neil Duke. "It seems as though the issue for the system is how to protect itself from individuals who are pathological. So, we'll have a serious dialogue about that."

What was planned to be a dialogue between parents and school officials about the Nov. 26 arrest of Shawn Nowlin quickly turned into a confrontation when a school official told parents that the meeting "wasn't a Q&A" about Nowlin.

"I can't give you answers," Jonathan Brice, school support networks officer, told the group of about 20. "We're not here to talk about an ongoing investigation or determine how he got here, because we can't answer that. What we want to do is figure out how to support our children."

Brice promised counseling services and crisis teams on Monday to help students.

But parents said they needed answers to start the healing process.

"You can't move forward if you don't acknowledge the past," said Erica Hamlett-Nicholson, a parent whose 11-year-old son, Jawone, and whose cousin received intensive counseling services from Nowlin for more than a year. Nowlin wrote letters in his capacity as the boy's therapist on the family's behalf.

"The legal process will work itself out," echoed George Crue, parent of a third-grader, who volunteered alongside Nowlin and said Nowlin did wonders for the school. "But we're here to find out who else is taking responsibility besides this one individual. I haven't heard anything about what's broken, and how we need to fix it."

The 27-year-old Nowlin was arrested and charged with second-degree rape, sex abuse of a minor and second-degree assault of a Harford County teenager he was counseling. The teen is not a student at Hazelwood. Prosecutors said Nowlin had legal guardianship of the teen, which he was able to obtain because he misrepresented himself as a therapist.

Charging documents said that in a monitored phone call, Nowlin admitted to the relationship and told the teen — who was four months pregnant — that he "should have been smarter" and loved her and offered to help her get an abortion.

Nowlin declined to comment this week; his attorney would only say that Nowlin maintains his innocence.

Nowlin told prosecutors he was a "Child and Family Therapist," but through their investigation, they said they determined he was a hall monitor. He told his wife that he was an administrator, Harford prosecutors said.

City school spokesman Michael Sarbanes said Wednesday that the school system did not know what duties Nowlin performed at Hazelwood when he was hired as a temporary employee in September 2011 to oversee "partnership coordination." He also said that it was unclear what functions he was supposed to perform under a $24,900 contract signed in August.

But according to a contract the school system provided late Thursday night to The Baltimore Sun, Nowlin was working as a "life skills education facilitator" and director of student support who was responsible for implementing, instructing and coordinating the school's life skills program for students.

The contract says he was to "provide structured support to emotionally disturbed students in crisis" as well as "provide services to students five to fifteen years old identified with mild cognitive impairment, severe learning disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injury or other health impairments."

The minimum qualifications for the job included a doctorate in social work or licensed clinical social worker degree; experience was preferred in special education.

Several parents said that Nowlin told them that he received a doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University this past spring, though Hopkins officials said they haven't had a graduate by that name for the past two years.

Online records with the Board of Professional Counselors & Therapists, Board of Social Work Examiners and Board of Physicians show that he is not licensed in Maryland.

He reported to the principal; the document was signed Aug. 20 this year by the current principal, David Wunder. Wunder declined to comment this week.

According to parents, prosecutors, community members, school officials and social media, Nowlin represented himself in a variety of capacities: as a child and family therapist, licensed social worker, guidance counselor, vice principal, dean of students, dean of student support, and director of community affairs.

Parents asked school officials how Nowlin had been given direct contact with students and layers of responsibilities when he was initially hired at the school to oversee community engagement events.

During the meeting, Helen Shelton, a central office liaison to the school, told parents that the school was "just as surprised" as they were to learn of the allegations against Nowlin.

She urged parents to remember that prior to the allegations, "no parent ever came forward and said Mr. Nowlin had done anything … harmful to your child. There were no flags at the time indicating he wasn't suitable to work with our students."

School system officials acknowledged that they do not have full oversight over hiring of temporary professionals. They said that the central office conducts full background and credential checks of permanent, full-time employees, but "hiring managers," who are often principals, are responsible for credential checks of contractors and temporary professionals.

The city's principals union said that the system's human capital office conducts all credential checks and determines who is eligible to work in the school system.

In the last five years, two high-ranking officials — a former school board president whom Alonso was planning to hire as a deputy CEO, and Alonso's deputy chief operating officer — have resigned after The Sun found they had misrepresented their credentials.

Nowlin was originally hired in 2011 by former principal Sidney Twiggs, who left the school at the end of last school year. Reached by phone Thursday, Twiggs said he was still employed by the school system.

"At this time I can't make any comment," he said, referring questions to a city schools spokeswoman. Asked why he couldn't comment, Twiggs said, "They told me, 'Don't say anything.'"

Jimmy Gittings, head of the city's principals union, attended the meeting Thursday, assuring parents that he "was working with management to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again."

Parents said they left with more distrust than when they arrived.

"I don't believe any of it," said Vivian Lee, the parent of a seventh-grader. "Give it a month, they won't even remember it. I don't even want them talking to my child."

Lee's son, Sallard, said Nowlin was a nice guy and would ask about his imaginary friend.

"Then, when I heard, that's when I got mad," Sallard said.

Tamnika Jones, a peer recovery advocate for Americorps Vista who has know the Nowlin family for years, said that he is a great guy who comes from a strong family of faith and educators. She offered to help the Hazelwood community — her daughter attends the school — with counseling.

"He cared about the kids," Jones said. "I just hope we can all come together and support each other, and it will work itself out. But at this point, it seems the kids are going to bounce back from this quicker than the adults."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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