NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — There were warning signs all along about what the high school’s popular basketball coach was doing alone with nude teenage boys, but the adults around them weren’t paying attention and the teen athletes felt helpless to speak out against the school’s “golden boy.”
In an 80-page investigative report released Monday, retired Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl took a broad look at the systemic failures that allowed former coach Aaron Thomas to conduct “naked fat tests” of teen boys for decades.
The scandal that has shamed one of the top-ranked high schools in Rhode Island involves a small number of people, McGuirl wrote. Her review found how the school district, School Committee, and even the police failed to protect students from harm.
There was a lack of training and oversight for coaches about boundaries and warning signs, a lack of communication between school officials and police when former athletes at last spoke up, and an impulse to contain the scandal and protect the school’s reputation when the complaints were finally taken seriously last year, the report found.
School officials failed to inform the state and federal agencies that oversee education matters and misconduct, including the state Department of Education and the US Department of Justice.
And, they failed to tell the school community.
The School Committee didn’t tell the public Thomas had been terminated in February 2021 or that they were sitting on an investigative report from last June that Thomas was “a potential threat and liability” — until after Thomas was hired by Monsignor Clarke School, a Catholic school in South Kingstown, and the accusations became public.
“It is questionable whether without the public and press inquiries about Thomas’ subsequent employment at another school that the [investigative] report would have been made public,” McGuirl wrote. “It is also unknown whether another report would have been ordered without the public criticism.”
The Town Council had commissioned McGuirl to analyze the findings of investigations into Thomas, offer legal opinions on whether or not school policies were followed, and why, and recommend actions the council could take. The Town Council decided to release the report before its regular Monday meeting and discuss recommendations to submit to the School Committee, which meets Tuesday.
Thomas, 54, is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and the North Kingstown police. The school district is under investigation by federal civil rights attorneys, and lawyer Timothy J. Conlon has filed civil lawsuits on behalf of former student-athletes and their parents.
McGuirl did not take a position on whether Thomas should be criminally charged.
“I firmly believe that any reasonable person would say that this conduct was inappropriate, improper, and not acceptable,” she wrote in her report. “Whether it is the basis for any criminal charges or civil liability will be determined by others in court.”
McGuirl interviewed 50 witnesses, except for Thomas, who declined, and the principal of Monsignor Clarke School, the Catholic school that hired Thomas last fall, months after he was quietly terminated by the School Committee.
Overall, McGuirl found “too much trust, and not enough questions” that left the town’s boys vulnerable to advances from their coach.
Thomas had built a winning basketball program, ran the summer sports camps without supervision for 20 years, and was part of the school’s sports culture that gave him a “free pass” to do whatever he wanted.
He was able to “normalize” his so-called “fat testing,” a program he created on his own and which experts told McGuirl was “inappropriate.” Over time, the teens saw the tests as a “rite of passage” to play on the basketball team, and Thomas even sought athletes from other sports for the testing.
When they received the first complaint from a former athlete in 2018, school administrators didn’t dig far to find out whether other students were affected. They didn’t tell the state Department of Education or the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families. “Within the district there appears to be a protection mentality which is insensitive to certain complaints and ineffective at responding to them,” the report said.
No one made an effort to preserve evidence, either; when Thomas was suspended in February 2021 and permanently cleaned out his office in July 2021, he was allowed to leave with the school laptop and boxes of items that no one checked, even though as a communications teacher, he had videos and digital files that were not reviewed.
The North Kingstown police didn’t tell the School Department about getting a complaint in 2018 and an anonymous tip from the FBI, something former superintendent Philip Auger told McGuirl would have made a difference in how he responded.
Former athletes going back to the mid-1990s complained Thomas had performed “body fat” tests on them while they were naked and alone with him, in either a closet or a small room attached to his office. Some said he used skin-fold calipers to explore their groin and buttocks, and had them do stretches and “duck walks” while nude. One told The Boston Globe Thomas used his bare hands to perform a “hernia check.” McGuirl’s report also said Thomas referred to the touching as “puberty” checks.
However, McGuirl found, none of the school authority figures or parents seemed to know the extent of the testing. Although Thomas had distributed weight-testing agreements, the consent forms said nothing about nudity or what the tests entailed.
McGuirl recommended changing the culture of the athletic department, improving how coaches are hired and trained, making sure police inform school officials when there is a complaint, and establishing a system for students to make complaints. She recommended the town look into legislation that establishes the requirements for educators to report sexual misconduct in schools.
“There has been too much collateral damage among the students, faculty, staff, and North Kingstown community at large caused by the actions of one person,” McGuirl concluded. “It is time for the School Department to admit their failings, make changes, and move on.”