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Ex-North Central theater director denies sexual abuse of students in new federal court filing

Nathan Shewell filed response to ex-students' lawsuit on October 17
Four former North Central High School students filed a federal lawsuit in May 2022 alleging the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township ignored a pattern of complaints about former drama teacher and theater director Nathan Shewell.
Posted at 12:24 PM, Oct 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-19 12:24:11-04

INDIANAPOLIS — In a new court filing, a former North Central High School theater director denies he verbally, physically and sexually abused students.

A warning: the following content may be disturbing or triggering to some of our readers.

Shewell worked at North Central High School as a drama teacher and theater director from 2013 until he was fired in 2020.

NathanShewell2 (2).jpg

Through his attorneys, Nathan Shewell filed a 24-page response this week to a federal lawsuit filed in May 2022 by four former North Central High School students in which he denied abusing and harassing female students.

The lawsuit alleges Shewell singled out female students for “disparate treatment and by abusing, harassing and physically violating them at least in part for the purpose of attempting to coerce them into sexual relationships with him.”

In his response filed October 17, Shewell denied the allegations.

“Defendant further denies that he discriminated against female students in any way,” read Shewell’s court filing.

This week’s court filing by Shewell’s attorneys marks the first time Shewell has publicly addressed any of the allegations against him.

Many of the claims in the federal lawsuit were brought to light in a February 2021 WRTV Investigation which outlined allegations of verbal, physical and sexual abuse and harassment of students by Shewell.

The WRTV Investigation prompted protests from students and parents who urged the district to better address allegations of sexual misconduct.

Shewell was previously represented by Indianapolis attorney Adam Lenkowsky, but records show Lenkowsky withdrew from the case earlier this month.

Shewell is now represented by law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP of Lexington, Kentucky.

According to the lawsuit filed in May 2022, Shewell groomed female students using “unwelcome physical touching, verbal abuse, and inappropriate sexual situations” including making comments about their bodies.

In his response filed this week, Shewell denied those allegations.

Former student Natalie Schilling claimed in the lawsuit Shewell made comments implying she should commit suicide.

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Natalie Schilling

She graduated from North Central High School in 2020 and did theatre under the direction of Nathan Shewell.

“He would heavily imply I should kill myself,” Schilling told WRTV. “He would say, ‘Hey jump off that platform, see if you hit your head.’"

In Shewell’s response filed this week, he denied Schilling’s claims.

The former students’ lawsuit alleges Shewell required students to participate in what he called the Meisner Acting Technique in which students had to recall their worst trauma.

Shewell would take each student into a closet alone and would have the student reenact their trauma, the federal lawsuit alleged.

It was in the closet where Jane Doe 1 alleged Shewell touched her “just under her breasts” and massaged Jane Doe 3’s shoulders, the federal lawsuit alleged.

In his October 17 response, Shewell admitted to participating in various acting exercises with his students including the Meisner Acting Technique, but denied doing anything inappropriate.

Shewell also denied putting girls in inappropriate sexual positions on stage, instructing girls to touch each other’s breasts and telling girls their outfits needed to be tighter.

PREVIOUS | State revokes teaching license for former North Central teacher amid misconduct allegations

Shewell, who no longer has a license to teach in Indiana, asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit again him.

No trial date has been set.

The lawsuit also alleges Washington Township schools was negligent because it hired Shewell despite a history of harassment at other schools.

WRTV Investigates did some checking and found not only did Shewell resign from Silver Creek in Sellersburg in 2012, he also resigned from LaPlata High School in Maryland in 2007 after working there for a year and a half.

TIMELINE

  • Hired at LaPlata High School in Maryland in January 200 6— Resigned June 30, 2007
  • Hired at Silver Creek High School in Indiana in August 2008 — Resigned Sept. 28, 2012
  • Hired at North Central High School in Indiana in August 2013 — Fired May 26, 2020

MSD of Washington Township Schools, North Central Principal Evans Branigan, performing arts chair Rick Granlund and choir director Michael Raunick were also named in the original lawsuit filed in May 2022.

North Central High School
North Central High School

However, Branigan, Granlund and Raunick were dismissed from the lawsuit in July.

MSD of Washington Township filed its own response to the federal lawsuit on July 28 in which the district denied knowing about Shewell’s alleged pattern of abuse.

The school district also denied it failed to conduct a proper background check into Shewell before hiring him.

The federal lawsuit states Schilling, other students and parents complained about Shewell’s behavior yet he remained employed with North Central High School.

In fact, a 2014 email provided by the ex-students’ attorneys show a parent reported concerns to performing arts chair Rick Granlund about Shewell’s “impossible problem” technique.

"I'm wondering under what circumstances it's appropriate for an adult to take a minor behind closed doors and interact with that child in such a way that causes him or her to emerge distraught," the parent’s 2014 email read.

Former North Central students Allie Wineland and Jamie Wann told WRTV in 2021 they witnessed Shewell make inappropriate remarks about female students' bodies.

“In front of the entire cast, he made comments about her boobs being too big for the costume,” Wineland said.

"He said that her breasts looked too big in the costume, but he said it in a way that he liked the way they looked, and I thought that was incredibly inappropriate,” Wann said.

In all, WRTV Investigates spoke with or received written statements from a dozen of Shewell’s former students at both schools alleging they were victims or witnesses of Shewell’s behavior.

Texas-based attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel and Carmel attorney Jeff Gibson of law firm Wagner Reese represent Schilling and the three Jane Does.

“That 2014 email is notice,” Tuegel said. “It is very clear notice that puts the school in a position where they can take action to change what's ahead. I think that's just so powerful and also painful and hard for our clients to know and see, because there was all this time where what they went through could have been prevented."

The lawsuit alleges the school suspended Shewell for a week in 2018 because of rumors he was sexually involved with Jane Doe 2.

“Although North Central High School claims it investigated the rumor, they did not send anyone to observe his class nor ask his students about their interactions with Shewell to determine if he engaged in any inappropriate behavior with his students, short of a sexual encounter,” the lawsuit read.

Gibson and Tuegel said more people came forward to them after WRTV’s 2021 investigation into Nathan Shewell.

“That was how we got the email from 2014,” Gibson said. “It was because of that early coverage that allowed people to feel comfortable to come forward.”

“We are very appreciative of you telling the initial story and investigative work you did,” Tuegel said.

Tuegel has represented high profile clients like gymnasts in the Larry Nassar abuse case, and says she took on the Nathan Shewell case because of the “pervasiveness” of Shewell’s alleged misconduct.

“The gravity of how much information was out there about Shewell, how much he did that, and for how long and how unchecked, it is one of the most severe cases in that regard that I've worked," Tuegel said.

Attorney Jeff Gibson said MSD Washington Township was negligent in its hiring process, but the district also failed to take seriously the complaints of North Central students and their parents.

"The school failed in its obligation to protect the students,” Gibson said. “They were negligent in doing background checks for Mr. Shewell, negligent in supervising him and negligent in how they handled complaints about Shewell.”

The lawsuit also allegations violations under Title IX, a federal law meant to protect students from mistreatment based on gender.

“A person with a lot of trust and power with these students abused it,” Tuegel said. “It’s kind of mind-blowing what they allowed for minor children.”

MSD Washington Township released the following statement the evening of May 4.

"At Washington Township Schools, protecting students is our top priority. We are deeply sorry to hear of the pain and harm that Shewell’s victims have described. On May 26, 2020, the District fired Shewell after learning that he made false statements in his job application in an effort to conceal his resignation from a previous employer due to allegations of inappropriate interactions with students at that school corporation. Washington Township Schools immediately alerted law enforcement, the Indiana Department of Child Services and the Indiana Department of Education regarding this matter. As a result, Shewell is no longer licensed to teach in Indiana. Additionally, the District began legal action against Shewell for his fraud and destructive actions. Following Shewell’s termination, the District received several new allegations. Some concerns came from North Central High School students, including some listed in the lawsuit, but primarily students from his prior school employer. The District, through its outside counsel, thoroughly investigated these claims at the time and reviewed District policies and practices. Additionally, before the students in the complaint came forward regarding Shewell, the District made important changes to its hiring practices to require a more thorough review of candidates through its continuing efforts to improve its practices. To further improve its practices, as the U.S. Department of Education has recently updated Title IX harassment reporting guidance, Washington Township Schools engaged with a partnership with the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking in the District’s effort to maintain its commitment to best practices. Staff misconduct will not be tolerated in Washington Township Schools. The District will continue to strongly enforce its long-standing Anti-Harassment policy [go.boarddocs.com] and provide multiple channels for students and parents to safely and anonymously report any harassment claims, located on the WT website main page [msdwt.k12.in.us]."

On May 4, the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township filed a lawsuit in Marion County against Nathan Shewell for fraud— the same day the former students filed their lawsuit in federal court.

The lawsuit is still pending.

The school district alleges Shewell lied on his job application when asked if he'd ever been asked to resign a position or resigned to avoid termination.

Shewell answered "no" yet Shewell resigned his position from Silver Creek High School while facing termination for an inappropriate student relationship, the lawsuit alleges.

"Defendant made false material representations or omissions of past facts to the School District regarding the circumstances of his employment at West Clark Community School Corporation, including the serious allegations levied against him, the discipline that he faced, and that he resigned while facing termination for alleged sexual relationships with students," read the lawsuit.

The school district said because Shewell had no criminal record, and because he lied on his job application, they hired him, the lawsuit alleges.

Washington Township schools is seeking monetary damages from Shewell, as well as attorneys' fees.

"Specifically, the facts and circumstances surrounding Defendant’s termination and post-termination events have caused the School District to pay Defendant for administrative leave, suffer reputational harm, incur legal fees to investigate his conduct, and sustain damages related to claims by Defendant’s students," read the lawsuit.

WRTV Investigates has attempted to speak with Shewell about the allegations involving former students, but he has declined to provide a comment.

PREVIOUS | Tort claim notices filed against district

In 2021, the district sent a letter to parents following WRTV’s story about Shewell.

“Recent accounts made by former District students about former employee Nathan Shewell in the media are deeply troubling,” the 2021 letter to parents read. “Protecting students from all forms of harassment is a top priority for Washington Township Schools. The District strongly enforces its long-standing Anti-Harassment policy and urges all students, administrators, teachers, staff, and all other school personnel to share responsibility for avoiding, discouraging, and reporting any form of unlawful harassment.”

The 2021 letter said the district also prohibits any retaliation against individuals who report a complaint alleging harassment.

“Despite these protections, at no time during Shewell’s employment with the Washington Township Schools were these accounts brought to the District’s attention,” the letter read.

Following our investigation and outrage from the community, Washington Township schools agreed to hold listening sessions.

PREVIOUS | District holds listening sessions following concerns about misconduct

The state of Indiana revoked Shewell’s teaching license in January 2021.

Also, Shewell would not be able to teach in an Indiana public school until at least January 2024.

IDOE could consider an initial reinstatement request, and if IDOE denies a reinstatement, Shewell could then appeal that to the Indiana Office of Administrative Law Proceedings, when an administrative law judge would make the final determination on licensure.

“If Shewell applies for license reinstatement after January 2024, then his prior actions would be factored into a reinstatement decision," said Holly Lawson, Deputy Director of Communications at IDOE. "License reinstatement is not automatic, with the safety of Indiana’s students always coming first.”

Shewell's license revocation is also now in a national database (National Association of State Directors of Teachers Education or NASDTEC clearinghouse) that would prevent him from teaching in another state.

He has never been criminally charged in connection with any of these allegations.

Attorneys for the former students question why school leadership remained intact following WRTV’s investigation into Nathan Shewell.

“When they’re still there I question whether that environment and the culture of how they’re handling abuse and harassment and discrimination has really changed, and from what we can tell, the answer to that is no and that’s why our clients are filing the lawsuit,” Tuegel said.

“They allowed this environment that Shewell operated in for more than six years,” Gibson said. “These are the same decision makers that are still responsible for the health and well-being of the students that attend Washington Township schools.”

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