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NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — As an experienced jurist and prosecutor, Susan E. McGuirl knew the thorns and thickets to navigate when tapped last November to produce as much of a unbiased report as possible on the “fat testing” controversy unfolding week after week.

Blaring media headlines and news stories breaking before local school officials could manage the outfall, produced a firestorm into which McGuirl stepped.

However, it was familiar territory.  A rigorous and street-smart lawyer, she handled difficult cases that took on the late and tough Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci and Newport’s rich and famous, such as socialite Claus von Bulow.

This time it was former North Kingstown High School coach Aaron Thomas and the town’s school system. “Fat testing” on naked boys was stunning a community that kept it secret for most of the 20 years it occurred.  

Appointed in November by the Town Council, McGuirl  issued a report Monday.

It essentially said the coach and those entrusted to take care of school children’s safety turned a blind eye to potentially dangerous acts by a former coach and for a variety of reasons.

The North Kingstown Town Council asked her to serve as a neutral third party to review the information, investigations, and reports concerning the allegations against Thomas while he was a teacher and coach of the boys’ basketball team at North Kingstown High School (NKHS).

“I wanted to speak with and listen to those that had the most information about these allegations. I believed it was necessary to give them an opportunity to be heard. I attempted this outreach by sending a letter to the media publicly asking for input from the community,” said the former judge.

McGuirl declined to be interviewed for this story because some civil and criminal investigations are still underway. That approach, however, fits her MO, according to those who know her.

The North Kingstown controversy needed just this kind of approach, said Council President Greg Mancini when she was appointed.

Her interview list numbers over 50 professionals of one kind or another. They range from past and present coaches, teachers, school superintendents and various administrators to police officials, school psychologists, state and federal law enforcement investigators and coaches from private and public high schools.

Others receiving a phone call for her interview included Child Advocate for the State of Rhode Island Jennifer Griffin. In addition, a lawyer for the School Committee gave her copies of the investigation and interview notes and exhibits he collected.

In some instances, this former prosecutor knew that one chat might not be enough.

“I chose to meet again with some of the key individuals at NKHS (North Kingstown High School)…so I could evaluate for myself the reliability of the information being provided by those key individuals,” she said.

“I went to NKHS on three separate occasions and met with the teachers and coaches to determine their reliability and to ensure they were all heard and recognized,” McGuirl noted.

“I also met with administrators and guidance counselors to determine if any complaints against Thomas had ever been made to them,” she added.

The former judge also talked with parents, current students and former students to hear their stories, listen to their grievances and simply lend an ear when some thought no one wanted to listen.

Ever the person mindful of evidence and how it supports a case or disclosing it could , she makes clear in her report that these interviews happened even though the names are not listed.

“I will not list the students, parents, and community members based on their request for privacy and concerns of unintentionally interfering with any ongoing investigations,” she wrote.

“I sought to engage with those parents and students specifically involved with the basketball program by sending an email to them asking them to contact me if they wished to discuss any information,” she said.

She also met with parents and students represented by an attorney, ensuring their voices were heard by her, too.

This collection of information helped to define her way of doing things from showing what can comprise her scope and methodology to her interest in the large and small details. These put together the fact-pattern the mind of a skilled and experienced judge is seeking.

In her report, she was upfront about how all this information would be used.

“I attempt to rely on credible information to answer these fundamental questions: 1) what happened, 2) why it happened, and 3) what steps can be taken to ensure that something like that does not happen again in the Town of North Kingstown,” she said.

Her report makes over 50 recommendations. She also took the unusual step to make legislative recommendations, too.

“I see myself as an arbiter of these matters and I am reviewing what others have done, but I also want to make sure that the review encompasses everything, I don’t represent anyone and I am not doing an investigation,” she said in a May interview with this newspaper.

In that same interview, her compassion crept out for a town just waiting for the next shoe to drop in the scandal.

“I want to do this soon,” she said in May, “and get it over before the end of the school year so that next year can start fresh and the town can get this behind it.” 

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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