NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — There was so much about the retired judge’s findings about the once-celebrated high school basketball coach that made them sick.
How Aaron Thomas “normalized” taking teen boys into a closet or his office alone, and getting them to undress for purported “body fat tests” that involved him touching close to their groin and having them do stretches naked.
How this went on for more than 20 years, because Thomas was respected, powerful, and left unchecked. All the missed red flags about his behavior.
And most of all, how no students ever reported Thomas to any teachers, administrators, coaches, or parents — because his behavior was considered a rite of passage to play ball, the school culture discouraged reporting, and, for boys, it’s difficult to come forward about sexual misconduct.
Town councilors hadn’t been united when they decided months ago to hire retired Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl to review the ongoing investigations and analyze what policies were broken, and develop recommendations for the town and school.
But they were all united at their meeting Monday night, both Republican and Democrat, at their astonishment of the many failures that allowed Thomas to continue “fat testing” — and how it was almost kept secret by school officials.
The five voted unanimously to accept McGuirl’s 80-page report, which the town council made public on Monday, and forward her recommendations to the School Committee for its response.
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.
Town Council President Greg Mancini said McGuirl’s report presented more facts about what happened, even beyond the investigations by the School Committee, by interviewing more than 50 witnesses, speaking with experts about athletic training, and offering recommendations such as legislation around reporting requirements for sexual misconduct.
Mancini was astonished that the judge didn’t find any student had reported what was going on.
So was Councilman Kerry McKay, who said the report showed so many failures it was hard to say who was to blame. “We have a situation that was allowed to proceed for 20 years, and no one said anything to anybody,” McKay said. “If one thing comes out of this tonight, there has to be two adults present whenever you have a minor [alone].”
Councilwoman Katherine Anderson said she was “sickened.” “I think we need to acknowledge the seriousness before us,” she added. “The judge over and over used the term ‘normalized,’ a culture and system was allowed where this was normalized. We have our work cut out for us to make sure this isn’t normalized.”
Councilwoman Mary Brimer, who hadn’t wanted to hire McGuirl, said now she thanked the judge for her report. Brimer called again for freezing some of the school surplus money set aside to settle claims being brought by former student-athletes who went through the fat testing. She also wanted to set up a fund to pay for therapy for anyone harmed by Thomas.
Councilwoman Kimberly Ann Page thought about when she’d served on the School Committee from 2006 to 2014, and the animosity between the school and town officials at the time — all while this was going on. They had to change, she said. “This is a community problem, and we need to come together and decide how we all will solve this problem,” she said.
That is some of what McGuirl also concluded in her report. “When a school fails, they lost the trust of the community that they serve,” the judge wrote. “Schools must recognize their failures and make the necessary changes to prevent something like this from happening again. That trust must be rebuilt, and that will take time. To rebuild this trust, they must be candid and transparent with the community they serve regarding the changes they are making and any future situations they may encounter.”
Conlon, who is representing some of the former student-athletes, thanked the Town Council for commissioning McGuirl’s review.
“It was reassuring to see that, to a person, the members of the town council seemed to recognize the magnitude of the problems that Judge McGuirl has documented and seem committed to tackling it,” Conlon said later.
As for the former athletes, who’d come forward as adults about the testing they went through as teens, they felt validated.
“They are really struck by the fact that Judge McGuirl nailed the culture issue and the way the school failed to make the students feel like their protection was a priority,” Conlon said. “For so long, the question was, Why didn’t students say anything? ... Judge McGuirl documented how well-established it is in the literature, that these things go under the radar when it’s normalized and when you’re in an environment with subtle hints that the way you feel about these events isn’t taken seriously.”
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.