The mystery of the counselor who wasn't

Who is Shawn Nowlin? Or perhaps we should be asking: Why can't the Baltimore school system answer that question?

It's been almost two weeks since Nowlin, who worked in some still-undetermined capacity at a Baltimore elementary and middle school, was charged in the rape of a 15-year-old girl he supposedly was counseling but instead impregnated.

Prosecutors in Harford County, where the 27-year-old Nowlin lives, said he identified himself as a vice principal or "dean of students" at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore — an obviously ludicrous title unless you believe there are also provosts of the playground at this level of the education system. Rather, prosecutors said, Nowlin was a hall monitor — although that doesn't seem to be the case either.

For now, it's easier to say what Nowlin probably wasn't — at least, the Hopkins Ph.D. that he'd claimed — than what he was. School officials say they're still trying to sort out what Nowlin was hired to do at Hazelwood, even though parents have told The Sun's Erica L. Green that he had been counseling kids, getting a high school placement for one student and, most bafflingly, suspending another one.

School district officials still can't quite explain what Nowlin's actual job at Hazelwood was. I may be missing something here, but it takes more than two weeks to, say, look at the sign on his office door or ask the principal what he hired him to do?

It's complicated, said schools spokesman Michael Sarbanes.

The complexity is sorting through what are apparently three different things, Sarbanes said. "What he was supposed to be doing, what he was actually doing and what he was holding himself out to be doing."

It seems like at least the first one should be clear enough, given employers generally know what they hire their employees to do. But Sarbanes says the district is reluctant to offer partial details until it can provide a complete picture.

What's alarming about all this is that for a year, Nowlin seemed to have been some sort of ambassador at-large at Hazelwood, with a self-created portfolio of duties and titles that he may not have been qualified or at least licensed to do. And he might still be roving the halls of Hazelwood, offering advice and getting called "Doc," had not he gotten into trouble at home in Harford County.

The girl he is alleged to have had sex with is not a student at Hazelwood, nor is the school in any way connected to how she and her parents met Nowlin. For some reason, guardianship of the girl was turned over to Nowlin, who was supposed to be counseling her for behavioral problems. He's been charged with rape, sexual abuse of a minor and assault.

In Baltimore, school officials note that there have been no similar complaints stemming from his work at Hazelwood. Which we can be thankful for, even if that doesn't clear the slate for the district.

That Nowlin was able to parlay a $20-an-hour temp job in "partnership coordination" into some position seemingly beyond that doesn't inspire confidence in school management. Nor does the fact that, as Sarbanes said, "he was asserting credentials he didn't actually have" and yet was signed in August to a $24,900-a-year contract as a "life skills facilitator."

The Sun has posted this contract online, and, with some classic circular logic, it defines the job thus: "The Life Skills Education Facilitator is responsible for the implementation, instruction, and coordination of the Life Skills Program." The first duty it lists is to "facilitate the Life Skills Program."

In fairness, reading deeper into the document, the job appears to involve working with students who have a range of impairments or disabilities to boost their education. Whether Nowlin was qualified to do this, or whether anyone did the due diligence to determine if he was, remains unclear.

Among the minimum qualifications required for the job was a doctorate in social work or a licensed clinical social worker degree — for a job that pays less than $25,000 a year. On the contract, Nowlin claimed both, adding a "Dr." honorific before his name and an "LCSW-C" after it.

School officials are still trying to determine what his actual credentials are — something that probably should have been done before rather than after he was hired under the contract — but already, Johns Hopkins officials have denied Nowlin's apparent claim to some parents that he received his doctorate there this spring.

I have to admit I find this case perversely fascinating. Did Nowlin just add an embellishment here and another one there over time, and at a certain point, start to believe that he was a social worker or guidance counselor or dean of students or whatever role he thought he was playing? Walter Mitty fantasies generally seem to involve more derring-do; people who go rogue tend to do so in more dashing locales than a neighborhood school.

But here's the thing: If there's any place where you should know who is walking your hallways or sitting in your offices, it's a school. It's like what Willie Sutton said about why he robbed banks: That's where the money is. This is where the kids are.

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