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Amid ‘fat test’ scandal, RI refuses to disclose teacher ‘alerts’

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Education is refusing to disclose how many public school educators currently have alerts on their teaching certificates similar to Aaron Thomas, the former North Kingstown coach now under investigation for having underage students strip naked alone with him behind closed doors for so-called “fat tests.”

The alerts – which range from minor issues including bounced checks to severe allegations of teacher misconduct – are maintained in an internal portal only accessible to a small group of state and local public school administrators. A Target 12 request to see a breakdown of all alerts across the roughly 75,000 people currently in the portal has been denied by the McKee administration.

“The internal alerts are designed to alert the Certification Office that further inquiry should be made before a certificate is issued or renewed,” state spokesperson Victor Morente said in a statement. “The system is broad and alerts can be placed due to something as minor as an applicant’s bounced check and incomplete paperwork to allegations under investigation that have not been given due process. These alerts would be considered investigatory records.”

Target 12 had not requested teachers’ names or any other personally identifiable information, and Morente has not provided any specific explanation for the denial, saying only the data wouldn’t be provided.

“The comment is all we have for you,” he said last week. Target 12 first requested the information on Nov. 4, and state officials were still working to compile it up until last week.

The teaching certification alerts have come under scrutiny amid the ongoing scandal involving Thomas in North Kingstown. As Target 12 first reported, the longtime former boys basketball coach has been accused by several former student athletes of inappropriately getting them to completely undress with him alone in his office for body fat testing.

The coach would have students strip down to their underwear before asking if they were “shy or not shy,” according to several interviews with former students. If not shy, the students said they were told to get completely naked, and Thomas would use a caliper to measure their upper inner thighs.

Thomas, who has not been charged with any criminal offenses, has argued through his attorney that he did nothing illegal and that the tests were done with parental consent. His lawyer, John MacDonald, provided a copy of a consent form last week, saying Thomas has more than 300 signed that span more than 10 years.

“This was not some shadowy, covert program,” MacDonald said in an email.

The so-called “Weight Testing Agreement” suggests participation in the program was “voluntary,” and one reason listed for the testing is to “accurately assess body fat percentage.” The form also has a line for both the student and their parent to sign, but it makes no mention of participants needing to strip naked for the testing.

The agreement also asserts participating in the program “will not positively or negatively impact your chances of making any athletic team.” But several former students who spoke with Target 12 said they felt like they were pressured to participate because failing to do so would negatively affect their standing on the team.

“Kids felt pressured because they felt it would affect their playing time,” said one former student basketball player, who Target 12 is not identifying.

“How do you say ‘no’?” he added. “Only five guys get to play on the court at once.”

Thomas was first hired in 1990 and the tests have been happening since at least the mid-1990s, according to multiple former students interviewed by Target 12. They continued until at least 2018 when an allegation about Thomas’s behavior was raised to Superintendent Phil Auger. Top school officials have since said they told Thomas at the time that “any testing of athletes be done in the locker rooms, with at least two adults present.”

The once-celebrated coach, who helped the town win its first state championship for boys basketball a year later in 2019, quietly resigned without announcement this year in June ahead of a termination that had been approved by the North Kingstown School Committee. The vote came in the wake of more former students coming forward with similar accusations in February.

“I’m writing to you because I can no longer stay silent about the trauma I was subjected to by Aaron Thomas,” wrote one former student in a February email to school officials provided by his attorney. “Every month for my entire time at NKHS Thomas brought me into his office (protected by CCTV) and asked me to get naked, then touched me all over my body.”

(Email sent to NKHS administrators/Courtesy Timothy Conlon)

Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil, however, school officials refused to publicly discuss the circumstances surrounding Thomas’s employment until after the allegations were reported by Target 12 last month.

Two months after his resignation, North Kingstown notified state education officials about the allegations, and the state agency claims it subsequently applied an alert to his teaching certificate.

But the alert was only visible to state officials and some district-level administrators who are granted access to the internal portal, meaning parents and private schools are kept in the dark about any potential issues tied to an educator with a teaching certificate in Rhode Island.

In September, Thomas was hired by a private Catholic school, Monsignor Clarke, in South Kingstown. The school placed Thomas on leave after learning about the allegations from Target 12. A week later, Thomas was fired, and principal Arthur Lisi wrote a letter to parents, sharply criticizing North Kingstown public schools for not telling them about the allegations.

“We have processed a series of emotions, including frustration knowing that during the hiring process we contacted North Kingstown High School which withheld from us the allegations, investigation, suspension, and planned termination of Mr. Thomas,” Lisi wrote in the Nov. 5 letter.

Historically, private and public schools are not known for having an open-door policy when it comes to sharing information, as curricula don’t always align and regulatory requirements sometimes differ.

But R.I. House Oversight Chair Patricia Serpa has said she would like that to change. The West Warwick Democrat has already called on the Education Department to review its policy on information sharing regarding disciplining teachers, pointing to the Thomas investigation as cause.

“Clearly this is ineffective and incomplete if it’s not available to human resources in all school systems,” Serpa said in a statement, referencing the state’s portal that’s not accessible to non-public schools. “If we are to be responsible for the safety and welfare of our children at all times, that must extend beyond the realm of the public school, and that system must be accessible to all schools, whether public, private, Catholic or charter schools.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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