NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – North Kingstown School Superintendent Phil Auger was told as early as 2018 that the former boys’ basketball coach was having underage students strip naked while alone with him behind closed doors, according to a document from the time and three people interviewed by Target 12.
The state’s child welfare agency says it received no report of the allegation at the time, and the coach – Aaron Thomas – remained at North Kingstown High School for more than two years until more former students came forward with similar accusations earlier this year.
Target 12 has also learned that while state education officials flagged an issue with Thomas last summer after his departure from North Kingstown High School, the information was posted to a system that was not accessible to the private Catholic middle school which went on to hire him this fall.
Thomas was placed on administrative leave in North Kingstown in February and he resigned ahead of a planned termination in June. The longtime former coach – who is accused of directing some former students to completely undress for so-called “fat tests” in his office without parental consent – is now under investigation by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and local police.
“We are working this criminal investigation in partnership with the North Kingstown Police Department,” Neronha spokesperson Kristy dosReis said in an email this week.
Thomas has not responded to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Auger didn’t notify North Kingstown families about the Thomas situation until after Target 12 first reported about the ex-coach’s alleged behavior last Friday. On Saturday, the superintendent sent a message claiming the former coach was immediately placed on leave after the school department “received an allegation regarding his job performance.”
But one former student, who spoke with Target 12 on the condition of anonymity, said he told Auger about Thomas’s behavior more than two years earlier. And documents reviewed by Target 12 show Auger asked that student to meet with him at his office in August 2018.
The purpose of that meeting, according to the student, was to further discuss what he’d already told Auger about Thomas’s behavior. Another person interviewed by Target 12 said the former student told him about his discussion with Auger around the same time it happened.
Separately, a third person interviewed by Target 12 also said a former student made Auger aware of Thomas’s alleged behavior in 2018, and that the topic was then discussed internally at the School Department.
The former student told Target 12 that Auger got back to him shortly after their initial discussion in 2018. The former student said Auger told him he took the allegations seriously and wanted him to come in to meet with school officials to talk about what happened. The former student said he felt uncomfortable at the time talking with others about something that was so sensitive and personal.
It’s unclear whether Auger or the School Department took the issue any further.
Since August, the superintendent has declined multiple requests for an interview about what steps were taken after the Thomas issue was raised with him in 2018. Target 12 also sent Auger an email specifically asking about what actions he took after being notified. He has not responded to those questions.
“The North Kingstown School Committee and School Department cannot legally comment on personnel issues regarding current or former employees,” Auger told Target 12 in an Oct. 27 email.
Target 12 has also emailed each member of the North Kingstown School Committee individually asking whether the superintendent notified them about Thomas in 2018. None has responded.
The following year, in 2019, Thomas was celebrated for leading the basketball team to its first-ever state championship. That same year, Auger was honored as Rhode Island’s Superintendent of the Year.
Then in February 2021, more than two years after the former student had first contacted Auger about Thomas, Auger reached back out to the former student and left him a voicemail. In his message, Auger indicated the pair hadn’t seen each other for multiple years but that they had discussed issues related to Thomas in the past.
“It’s Phil Auger,” the superintendent said in the voicemail, which was shared with Target 12. He went on to say, “Still working at the North Kingstown School Department, and I wanted to follow up with a question for you on the issues regarding Aaron Thomas. So, if you have a moment, can you call me?”
A spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families told Target 12 the agency first received a report about Thomas in February 2021, around the same time when new allegations were brought forward and when Auger reached back out to the former student who had approached him in 2018.
Under state law, all adults are legally obligated to report any abuse of children to DCYF if they have any “reasonable cause to know or suspect that any child has been abused or neglected.”
“Abused or neglected” is defined as “a child whose physical or mental health or welfare is harmed, or threatened with harm, when his or her parent or other person responsible for his or her welfare” inflicts or allows it to occur.
“At this time, the DCYF is unclear when information or what details were reported to the North Kingstown School Department,” DCYF spokesperson Kelly Brennan told Target 12 on Thursday. “Therefore, we cannot definitively state whether a report should have been made.”
In his letter to parents last weekend, Auger argued the district did take action, noting the School Committee’s vote to terminate Thomas earlier this year.
The superintendent also said the matter was turned over the North Kingstown Police Department, which ultimately ended the investigation after determining there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Thomas criminally. (The attorney general’s office has since said the investigation is ongoing.) The Police Department was also notified about Thomas’s behavior by a former student in 2018, according to police and a text message from the time that was reviewed by Target 12.
Auger also indicated that the district notified the R.I. Department of Education. However, Target 12 has now learned officials at RIDE only received a report about Thomas in early August – months after he was first placed on administrative leave in North Kingstown.
“I can confirm that NKSD contacted RIDE in early August,” Department of Education spokesperson Victor Morente said in an email. “RIDE takes these allegations incredibly seriously. The agency applied the appropriate alert to his certification for further inquiry as needed.”
Target 12 previously asked RIDE about the status of Thomas’s teaching certificate back on Aug. 31, but at the time the department did not respond. Morente said that was due to confidentiality concerns, which have since been allayed because they have received “more information.”
In August, Morente said, RIDE was aware of the issue with Thomas and put a “flag” on the department’s internal teachers’ certifications system, which would have notified any public school district that there had been some past issue with the teacher. But the flag isn’t visible from the the public-facing side of the department’s website.
After resigning from North Kingstown, Thomas was quickly rehired at a Catholic middle school, Monsignor Clarke in South Kingstown. The school does not have access to the state’s internal teacher certification system because it’s a private school, according to Morente.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence spokesperson Michael Kieloch said Monsignor Clarke, which falls under its umbrella, was unaware of the allegations against Thomas before hiring him. The school placed him on administrative leave pending the outcome of the attorney general’s investigation after Target 12 inquired about Thomas’s employment last week.
The North Kingstown School Committee is now slated to meet in a closed-door session on Saturday. The meeting was posted the day after Target 12 released its months-long investigation into Thomas’s alleged behavior.
The agenda for the meeting doesn’t name Thomas specifically, but cites reasons for meeting in executive session that include personnel matters, “potential litigation/legal advice” and “discussion of any investigative proceedings regarding allegations of misconduct, either civil or criminal.”
Asked Tuesday if the attorney general’s office was looking into other issues beyond Thomas’s alleged behavior, a spokesperson declined to comment.
This story has been updated to clarify discussions that happened in 2018.