INDIANAPOLIS — A push for change is underway into the state’s statute of limitations following a WRTV investigation into an Indiana teacher accused of misconduct with students.
Former North Central teacher Nathan Shewell’s state license is now revoked.
State lawmakers, advocacy groups and former students say the state of Indiana needs to do more to get to the truth and hold institutions accountable.
Two newly filed tort claim notices against the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township allege the district failed to address complaints of misconduct involving former teacher and theater director Nathan Shewell between 2016 and 2020.
Both claims allege mental and physical abuse and one claim also alleges sexual abuse.
One student, identified as Jane Doe, alleges in her tort claim notice that Shewell commented on her breasts, referred to her as a “rep slut,” and suggested she needed to be on birth control.
“While preparing for a performance from the musical Rent, Shewell required Jane Doe and another girl to remain late after school to ‘practice’ becoming comfortable with sexuality by repeatedly touching each other's breasts while he watched,” the tort claim notice alleges.
WRTV Investigates found complaints about Shewell’s behavior date back a decade and more than 100 miles away.
In 2008, Ashley Nation was a student at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg Indiana when she first met Shewell.
"It started simple and he would put his hand on my shoulder or the small of my back, and then he would come up and say ‘hey your ass looks really great in those pants today,’” said Nation. “It just slowly became more. He would come up and grab my butt or make comments."
Nation, now 29, said once she turned 18, she agreed to a sexual relationship with him.
Nation didn’t report Shewell’s conduct at Silver Creek until 2020, when she learned he was teaching at North Central High School in Indianapolis.
"I sat down with a Sellersburg detective and I told them everything that had happened,” said Nation. “Pretty much there was nothing they could do."
That’s because Indiana’s statute of limitations had passed.
“For most crimes, it’s five years,” said Shaunestte Terrell, a former Marion County prosecutor and an attorney with Cohen and Malad in Indianapolis. “Unless it’s a level 1 or level 2 felony, then there’s no statute of limitations. It’s only a level 1 or 2 if certain factors are present, for example, if they’re drugged, if there’s a deadly weapon or a threat of deadly force.”
Terrell said it’s rare for childhood survivors of sexual abuse to get justice in criminal court beyond five years, unless there’s a confession or DNA is discovered.
"Ethically a prosecutor can't go forward with a case if they don't think they can do it,” said Terrell.
Terrell now files civil lawsuits for childhood survivors of sexual abuse, but the civil statute of limitations in Indiana is age 25.
"It's so frustrating, because we get someone on a weekly basis who is finally ready and ready to do it and I can't help them," said Terrell.
Terrell said a civil lawsuit against a school district or another institution can prompt policy and protocol changes.
"The real way to affect change when it comes to these corporations and other entities, is to go after their pocketbook,” said Terrell. “It's pretty appalling but unfortunately it's the hard truth.”
Child USA is a national think tank which studies the statue of limitations and its impact on child sexual abuse victims.
In its 2020 report on the Statute of Limitations, it criticized the state of Indiana.
“The best states for civil SOLs are Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Vermont, and the worst are Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” read the report.
Connecticut victims up to age 48 (age of majority, 18, plus 30 years), whether or not the claim previously expired, can sue for damages.
“The worst states — Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota — are well behind other states and standing still during this active movement, which means that they are increasingly out of step with the rest of the country.”
“The average age of coming forward is age 52,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA. “The system in states like Indiana is really friendly to perpetrators and to institutions that don't protect children. But it is shutting out victims."
Professor Hamilton said civil lawsuits are essential for holding institutions accountable and bringing the truth to light.
"The records have to be released,” said Hamilton. “We only know about the Boy Scouts perversion files because of this kind of litigation."
Indiana State Senator Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, filed Senate Bill 135 this session that would remove the state of limitations for survivors to file a civil lawsuit against a perpetrator or institution.
But for the third year in a row it didn’t get a hearing, said Freeman.
"My heart breaks for anybody especially a kid that's been the victim of this,” said Freeman. “I think we need to give them an avenue, some way to bring the grievance forward. I think it helps the healing process and you want to hold somebody accountable.”
Child USA says nationally, opponents of similar legislation include the insurance industry, Catholic Conference and the American Tort Reform Association.
Nationally, some critics say removing the statute of limitations could result in a cascade of frivolous lawsuits with little evidence.
"I think that's what we trust judges and juries for, and that's why we trust the legal system for,” said Freeman. “Somebody can make a claim and if there's no evidence there, the system is going to work"
WRTV checked with the Indiana Catholic Conference, and they told us they have not lobbied against Senate Bill 135.
The Insurance Institute of Indiana and the American Tort Reform Association did not respond to questions from WRTV asking for their position on Senate Bill 135.
Senator Liz Brown, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to speak with WRTV about why she did not give the bill a hearing.
Ashley Nation can’t file a tort claim notice like former North Central High School students.
Nation, age 29, is out of options because the statute of limitations has passed both criminally and civilly.
But she hopes legislation will give more power to other survivors.
“It gives me hope,” said Nation. ”My hope with this bill and if they get to hear my story is that schools they need to do their due diligence."
North Central High School fired Nathan Shewell in May 2020
The district told WRTV it found Shewell, “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.”
MSD of Washington Township notified the Indiana Department of Education, which filed a formal complaint against Shewell’s license and revoked it January 6.
Shewell’s teaching license is now revoked for the next three years.
He and his attorney have declined to comment to WRTV regarding the IDOE complaint and the tort claim notices.
WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP SCHOOLS’ STATEMENT AS OF 2/23/2021
“We regret that these egregious claims were not brought to our attention sooner, however the suggestion that the District, and North Central Principal Bryant Branigan in particular, knew these details during Shewell’s employment is false. The District did receive a small number of complaints regarding instances where Shewell’s harsh tone or unsympathetic style emotionally impacted students, and the District addressed these concerns swiftly. For example, your media story recounted how Shewell did not show the appropriate empathetic response to a student’s thumb injury. But the new reports regarding Shewell’s sexual comments directed at female students were never relayed to the District.
When the District received additional concerns from students (mostly non-Washington Township students) after Shewell’s termination, the District, through its outside counsel, thoroughly investigated these claims and reviewed District policies and practices. This included contacting the two tort claimants, one of which did not respond to an invitation to participate in the investigation. These reports did bring disturbing news to light regarding his behavior at the prior school employer, but the reports identified no new evidence of inappropriate sexual conduct regarding Washington Township Schools students.”
WRTV Investigates gathered the following statements in our previous reporting on the case.
SILVER CREEK’S RESPONSE REGARDING SHEWELL
When Mr. Shewell was employed at Silver Creek High School, the school was a part of the West Clark Community School Corporation. Silver Creek High School is now under new leadership and a new school corporation, the Silver Creek School Corporation. Silver Creek School Corporation takes any allegations of teacher misconduct seriously, and we have no information to provide as to how a different organization and administration handled the matter.
Todd Voigt | Director of Human Resources/Operations for the Silver Creek School Corporation in Sellersburg
INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION STATEMENT
The Indiana Department of Education prioritizes student safety, one of the most critical responsibilities we face. We routinely collaborate with school administrators to identify misconduct in Indiana schools, and our educator licensure team takes swift action to keep these offenders away from students. As a new administration learning about this situation, we’ll be exploring how we may improve processes in the future to best protect our students and maintain the integrity of the education profession.
Indiana is home to some of the nation’s best educators. The actions of the individual described in this report are repugnant and should in no way reflect upon the more than 78,000 educators who work with integrity serving Hoosier students and families every day.