Sex abuse suspect had won trust of city parents, students as school employee

Shawn Nowlin
(Harford County Sheriff's Office photo)

For Erica Hamlett-Nicholson's 11-year-old son, Shawn Nowlin was his most trusted confidant when the Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School fifth-grader suffered from depression caused by his parents' separation.

For Duanelle Woodard's nephew, he was the guidance counselor who helped him secure placement in a high school of his choice. And for Antoine Jackson, Nowlin was the heavy-handed administrator who suspended his son for the first time in his academic career.

But Nowlin was a hall monitor, not a child and family therapist as he claimed, according to Harford County prosecutors and Baltimore City school officials. And last week the 27-year-old man was arrested on charges in Harford that he had sex and impregnated a 15-year-old girl he was counseling for behavioral problems; she was not a Hazelwood student.

Nowlin had won the trust of a number of students and parents at the school in Northeast Baltimore and led its PTA. The temporary employee also lied about being a school administrator, according to prosecutors.

"I'm just sick," said Hamlett-Nicholson, whose son Jawone had been seeing Nowlin as a therapist for the last year. "My son needed serious help, and I turned him over to this man because the school told me that I could. I was so proud I was able to send him to a doctor, and they let me turn my baby over to a hall monitor."

School officials acknowledged Wednesday — a week after Nowlin's arrest Nov. 26 on charges of second-degree rape, sex abuse of a minor and second-degree assault — that there is virtually no effort to ensure that credentials of temporary employees are checked. Officials said they are still trying to determine what duties Nowlin performed at the school after he was hired in September 2011.

"There were many dimensions to what he was doing, or saying he was doing at the school," said city schools spokesman Michael Sarbanes.

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.

Prosecutors said Nowlin had represented himself as a doctor to the Harford victim's family, and parents at Hazelwood said he was helping their students as a therapist.

Nowlin declined to comment when contacted this week, referring questions to his attorney.

"Due to the very serious nature of the pending charges and out of respect for the alleged victim in this matter, Mr. Nowlin maintains his innocence and will have no further comment at this time," said Nowlin's attorney, Terry Lavenstein, who declined to comment about Nowlin's credentials.

According to charging documents, Nowlin engaged in a sexual relationship with the Harford teenager when the girl's parents turned over legal guardianship to him, thinking he was a mental health therapist. Harford County prosecutor Lisa Marts said in an interview last week that the alleged victim is a student in Harford County — and that Nowlin met her and her parents outside of school functions.

Charging documents said Nowlin and the girl had sex at least five times and the victim was four months pregnant.

During a monitored phone call between Nowlin and the victim, he admitted the sexual relationship and offered to assist her in getting an abortion, according to the documents.

Nowlin told the girl that "it was never about age" and that he loves her, the documents state.

The Baltimore City school district is preparing to face Hazelwood parents in a meeting Thursday. Parents are demanding answers about how Nowlin was able to amass such responsibility at the school where he was known as "Doc."

City school officials said Nowlin was hired at $20 an hour to temporarily oversee "Partnership Coordination," a community outreach position, in September 2011 and became a contractor in August, paid $24,900 a year. When asked what functions he performed as a contractor, the school system said it was still investigating.

Prosecutors said they concluded that he was a hall monitor.

The school's new managing assistant principal, David Wunder, who did not hire Nowlin, declined to comment Wednesday. In a letter sent home to parents Nov. 29, he wrote that "Mr. Nowlin no longer provides services of any kind at our school."

Nowlin's last day was the day after his arrest, according to Sarbanes, though the school system had said in a statement last week that he stopped working in September.

Kim Lewis, who oversees the system's human capital office, said her office conducts background checks and fingerprinting, but "hiring managers" are responsible for extensive credential checks of temporary employees.

In most cases, hiring managers are principals, who under city schools CEO Andrés Alonso were given autonomy to hire their own staff. According to a database provided by the school system, there were 1,184 temporary employees working for the school system in 2011; 314 shared Nowlin's status as "Temporary Professional II."

School officials said they did not know if Nowlin's credentials were checked when he was hired, but he did pass the background check.

Sarbanes said the rules for verifying temporary employees' credentials are murky.

"We are reviewing the guidance and the training that we provide to make sure that the process is clear, and the protection of the students we serve is priority No. 1," Sarbanes said. "The current guidance — it's not crystal clear, and it should be crystal clear."

Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals union, said that checking credentials is not a "principal problem," and that it was the human capital office's responsibility to check credentials.

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 Baltimore Sun found they had misrepresented their credentials.

"They didn't check credentials when they hired an outgoing school board president and offered him a position with a salary higher than any other employee in the city school system besides the CEO," Gittings said. "The buck stops with North Avenue [headquarters]. They determine who is eligible to work in the system."

Lewis said a "Child and Family Therapist," the job title that Nowlin told prosecutors he had and that was posted on his Facebook page, does not exist in the school system.

The comparable position is a school social worker, officials said, one that a temporary employee would not fill because it is a union-bargained position. That position requires a master's in social work, a Maryland State Board of Social Work Examiner's license, and certification through the state Department of Education.

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.

Several parents said that he 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.

Hamlett-Nicholson said her son is grappling with the fact that Nowlin, whom he considered "a hero," is out of his life.

"I just feel so stupid. I feel like I let him down," Hamlett-Nicholson said.

Hamlett-Nicholson said that Nowlin had also written to her public housing complex in his capacity as a doctor to help her secure a larger house for her family. In one of the letters, he outlined her son's clinical depression and his need for his own space to deal with his anxiety.

Maia McFliggins, who said Nowlin told her of his Hopkins graduation, recalled his large office and his talk of being overworked.

"There's no doubt that he worked very tirelessly and hard for the students at Hazelwood, so much so that from an outsider's perspective, he was in charge," said McFliggins, who volunteered at the school to help Nowlin with PTA projects.

But McFliggins said she has great concerns about the school system's oversight.

"I'm just very concerned as a community member about how did we get in this position, where there was no vetting," she said.

Jackson said that when his son was suspended, he knew that only a handful of administrators had that power.

"My son said the vice principal suspended him, so I thought he was the vice principal," Jackson said. "I was shocked. He went from being a vice principal-slash-counselor-slash-hall monitor. I'm wondering what kind of people they have gaining status in all of the schools."

And Woodard — Hamlett-Nicholson's mother — said her nephew relied on Nowlin to help him deal with his attachment issues after she adopted him. She said he wouldn't have been able to attend Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts without Nowlin.

"I asked what I needed to do, and they said, 'Go see Dr. Nowlin,'" Woodard recalled. "He told me what to do. He didn't have to look it up, he knew it. He had everything about my son, about every school, pulled up on his computer. If you were a hall monitor, why do you have access to all of that, in your own office, on your own computer?"

Woodard wondered about the lasting effects Nowlin's arrest would have on students.

"These kids changed their whole demeanor because they respected this man," Woodard said. "I just can't believe the school system allowed it to go this far. I can understand people being temporary and contractual, but you still have to be who you are."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George Contributed to this article.



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