City school system broke policy in hiring of Nowlin

Shawn Nowlin
(Harford County Sheriff's Office photo)

The Baltimore school system failed to follow its policies when hiring a temporary employee who allegedly misrepresented himself as a child therapist and is now charged with raping a teen.

City school officials said Shawn Nowlin, a 27-year-old arrested Nov. 26 on charges that he impregnated a 15-year-old in Harford County, was hired in September 2011 to oversee "partnership coordination" and act as a community liaison at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School under the title "Temporary Professional II."

Nowlin was employed for a year under that title, but the rules say temporary workers' employment cannot exceed 90 days. In addition, according to the policy approved by the school board in 2001, the system's department of human resources must review all applications for short-term employees. But school officials said this week that hiring managers, who are often principals, are responsible for vetting their credentials.

Officials have said they don't know whether Nowlin was vetted and that they are still investigating his specific duties at Hazelwood. School system spokesman Michael Sarbanes said Friday that Nowlin was "asserting credentials he didn't actually have."

Nowlin was hired to the temporary position at $20 per hour and earned a total of $25,145, school officials said. Under the hiring rules, his title includes teachers and other educators. He later secured a contract under a different title.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said in response to an inquiry from The Baltimore Sun that he plans to meet with central office staff on Monday and principals by the end of next week to discuss the issue. He said he did not attend a meeting this week with parents — who demanded to know why the schools chief has stayed quiet — because he was out of the office for a family emergency.

"This is an important and sensitive issue, and I do not want to react without understanding exactly what happened, both at the school and district level, since obviously balls were dropped," he said.

Alonso said he has "been gathering the facts" over the past week.

On Friday, school system officials did not respond to questions about Nowlin's temporary employment and the hiring rules.

The district's Parent and Community Advisory Board said in a statement that it requested a meeting with Alonso to discuss security measures at schools.

"PCAB believes that it is critical that all contractual staff in schools be properly vetted and that their roles within the school be clearly defined," said board member Melanie Hood-Wilson.

School officials have vowed that they will tighten guidelines for the hiring of temporary employees, which they said weren't "crystal clear," particularly about checking of credentials.

Officials also said that principals are often the people responsible for verifying the academic and professional backgrounds of the employees they hire, while the central office conducts criminal background checks, which they said Nowlin passed. The principals union president said all of those responsibilities lie with the district's human resources office.

A reference guide published for employees for the 2013 fiscal year reads, "Under no circumstances can temporary employees begin work prior to receiving official notification from the Office of Human Capital."

Child abuse experts say credential checks should be the most clear-cut measure a school can take to protect children.

"Parents should be able to rest comfortably knowing that the people who are in their children's building are who they say they are," said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. "If [school officials] can't take that level of due diligence, how is there any level of safety and comfort?"

Human resources experts say vetting responsibility should always stay in one centralized location.

Jonna Contacos-Sawyer, president of the Johnstown, Pa.-based HR Consultants, said employers should always vet job candidates, including checks for criminal background, verifying degrees and professional licenses, and running credit reports.

"You really need to do a thorough background check," Contacos-Sawyer said.

Contacos-Sawyer said organizations should perform human resources functions, including hiring and fact-checking resumes, from a centralized office, rather than distribute the responsibility to managers such as principals.

"It's best for principals to be in charge of what they do best," she said. "Let the HR professionals do what they do best."

Nowlin was arrested and charged with second-degree rape, sex abuse of a minor and second-degree assault in connection with a Harford County teen 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. During an investigation, prosecutors said, they concluded he was a hall monitor.

Nowlin and his attorney have declined to comment on the charges and his credentials. Nowlin's attorney said his client maintains his innocence.

According to online court records, Nowlin pleaded guilty in 2006 in Baltimore County District Court to theft of more than $500. Details of that case were unavailable late Friday.

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.

In August, Nowlin signed a $24,900 contract as a "life skills education facilitator" and director of student support, and his duties were to "provide structured support to emotionally disturbed students in crisis."

According to school officials, he earned $17,796 of the contract — which was to expire June 29, 2013 — between August and November.

The minimum qualifications for the job include a doctorate in social work or a licensed clinical social worker degree.

On the contract, signed and dated by Nowlin and the school's principal Aug. 20, Nowlin identified himself as a doctor and licensed social worker.

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

A Facebook page under his name indicates Nowlin attended Howard and Hampton universities. Officials at both schools said they haven't had a student or graduate by that name.

City school officials declined to release Nowlin's resume Friday because it was part of his personnel file.

A "School Improvement Plan" — a 94-page document outlining extensive measures for raising achievement at Hazelwood — published by the school system in 2011 listed Nowlin as the director of community affairs and acting guidance counselor.

According to a job posting by the system, a guidance counselor requires a master's degree and must be certified as a guidance counselor by the state.

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.