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Attorney for former RI coach says naked ‘fat tests’ were not illegal

Target 12

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — An attorney representing the former high school boys basketball coach accused of inappropriately asking former students to strip naked for so-called “fat tests” is denying any unlawful conduct, arguing the tests were completely voluntary and done with parental consent.

Aaron Thomas, who started working for the North Kingstown School Department in 1990, resigned in June before a vote to terminate him could take effect after multiple former student-athletes came forward to accuse him of having them completely undress alone with him behind closed doors. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha is now investigating the allegations.

John MacDonald, who said he was retained last week to represent Thomas, did not dispute that the tests happened while the former students were naked. But he denied that anything illegal happened.

“The testing program was solely designed to help student-athletes improve their performance,” MacDonald said. “This was a completely voluntary activity and students could enter or leave the program at will. Parental consent forms were utilized. Aaron Thomas spent countless hours collecting and inputting the composition data to assist hundreds of student athletes in reaching their goals.”

“He has dedicated 32 years of his life to the North Kingstown School Department and adamantly denies any allegations of unlawful conduct,” he added.

MacDonald’s comments mark the first time Thomas has made any public statements since Target 12 first reported on his alleged inappropriate behavior Oct. 27.

As part of a months-long investigation into Thomas, Target 12 has interviewed nearly two dozen former students, parents and town officials who said the naked skin-fold body tests had been going on since the mid-1990s until the late 2010s. At least two parents said they never signed parental consent forms approving that their children be naked alone with the coach behind closed doors.

Several students said the tests have since troubled them for years.

“After I grew up, I started asking some real questions about what happened,” one former player told Target 12. “Did I need to be naked?”

Among the parents who dispute MacDonald’s claim that they provided consent forms allowing nudity is North Kingstown School Committee member Jennifer Lima, who publicly spoke out this week to discuss her family’s personal experience with the fat tests.

Lima said her son went through the naked fat testing when he played for Thomas in the 2000s — a fact she didn’t learn until earlier this year when new allegations came to the attention of school officials. At that point her son told her he had been naked alone with the coach for the tests.

“I was as shocked as everybody else,” she said. “And I felt bad as a mom that I hadn’t known that that had happened.”

Thinking back to her son’s time playing for Thomas more than a decade ago, she said it’s “entirely possible” that she signed some type of consent form for fat testing, noting that parents of high school athletes have to sign a lot of forms. But she’s adamant there was nothing disclosed about her child needing to get completely naked.

“I’m certain that I would remember if the word ‘naked’ had been in there,” she added.

Lima and the rest of the School Committee voted to terminate Thomas in February after additional former students came forward to accuse him of inappropriate behavior. (A previous allegation had been made in 2018.)

Former students who have spoken to Target 12 allege that Thomas would bring them into his office, ask them to strip down to their underwear and then ask them if they were “shy or not shy.”

The former students said that if they answered “shy,” they could keep their underwear on. If “not shy,” they said Thomas would tell them to take off their underwear and then he would use a caliper to measure their fat on the upper inner thigh. Multiple physical trainers interviewed by Target 12 said being naked for skin-fold tests is unnecessary, and the students said the testing made them feel “weird” and “uncomfortable.”

“I dreaded it for days leading up,” said one former student, who told Target 12 he was tested in the mid-1990s.

Several former players said the fat testing was never connected to any follow-up dieting or exercise regime. MacDonald insists Wednesday the tests were necessary and appropriate.

“It has all the hallmarks of legitimate data collection,” MacDonald said.

Multiple former students said Thomas had a security camera outside of his office that showed whether anyone was approaching his office from the hallway. And at least one former student has accused Thomas of also performing a naked hernia test, saying the coach asked him to completely undress before using his hand to apply pressure above and below his genitalia.

Thomas “denies any hernia checks,” MacDonald said.

The attorney also confirmed that Thomas has previously cooperated with an investigation by the North Kingstown Police Department, saying he sat down for a 90-minute interview “some months ago.” The local police told Target 12 in September the investigation into Thomas had been closed, but the attorney general’s office subsequently announced it remains open.

MacDonald said Thomas “intends to fully cooperate” with law enforcement.

Lima — whose comments were first reported earlier Wednesday by The Boston Globe — said she and her colleagues have been the focus of vocal criticism and allegations of a cover-up. But she argued they have been either legally or ethically prohibited from discussing the internal personnel matter publicly.

Talking about her family’s experience, she said, is one way she can explain that this is also affecting her personally.

“I saw a sign on Saturday that said, ‘What if it is was your child?'” she said. “Well, it is my child, and it is a lot of people’s children that you may not know about.”

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.

An earlier version of this story misstated John MacDonald’s first name.

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

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