NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – When North Kingstown High School officials confronted Aaron Thomas in 2018 with an allegation that he acted inappropriately by measuring underage students’ body fat alone in his office, the then-boys basketball coach was reportedly surprised.
“He seemed to be taken aback that there was insinuation that he was doing something inappropriate with students,” Superintendent Phil Auger told an investigator earlier this year as he recalled the interaction, adding Thomas assured him that “at no point was any student ever naked in his presence.”
The school officials ultimately took Thomas at his word, later describing him as having “an excellent reputation among the faculty, staff, parents, students, and the community at large,” according to an 87-page report released this week in response to a public records request by Target 12.
At the same time, in order to address what school officials said “may appear to be a level of impropriety,” the district and booster’s club jointly purchased a $5,000 state-of-the-art body-fat testing machine for Thomas to continue his testing regimen under new conditions.
“All measurements will be made in locker rooms with more than one ‘supervisor’ present,” then-athletic director Dick Fossa wrote in an email to the former coach and Auger. Thomas called it “an excellent purchase,” and Auger responded: “Great Solution!”
Now, however, a private attorney representing multiple former students is alleging that North Kingstown officials’ 2018 plan failed and Thomas ignored the conditions. The allegation comes as R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha leads a criminal investigation into the matter.
The attorney, Tim Conlon, on Wednesday provided North Kingstown School Committee attorney Mary Ann Carroll with what he described as a release from a student “who reports being ‘tested’ by Thomas in 2019 and 2020 – naked in Thomas’ office at the school.”
On Thursday, Conlon told Target 12 the student’s statements contradicted North Kingstown officials’ claims that the naked fat tests ended in 2018.
“There is indeed evidence that suggests that the belief that this was somehow quelled or stopped or ceased in 2018 just was not the case,” Conlon said.
Thomas has not been charged with any criminal offenses, and he has argued through his attorney that he never did anything illegal. But the school district’s internal investigation described his behavior as “voyeuristic,” and said Thomas’s answers to questions were often riddled with “untruthfulness.”
The former coach – who resigned in June before a decision to fire him took effect – told school officials the students he tested were never naked. He made the same claim to North Kingstown police officers on Feb. 22, saying “students never had to get down to their underwear and that they never took their underwear off for any portion of the test,” according to the report.
More than a dozen students, parents and town officials interviewed by Target 12 have said Thomas regularly directed students to get completely naked for the tests dating back to the mid-1990s.
They said Thomas would ask them to remove all clothes except their boxers before asking them if they were “shy or not shy.” If they said “not shy,” he would direct them to remove their underwear, so he could take measurements of their upper inner thighs. Some students said he would kneel in front of them and inappropriately touch them around their genitals, sometimes breathing heavily.
“It was common for him to move my genitals out of the way so he could pinch my leg,” one former student told police. “He had me lift my genitals up and then poked around my genitals with his fingers, including below them; between the scrotum and my anus.”
Thomas has denied ever checking students for hernias, telling police he “remembered a couple of students approaching him about possibly having hernias.” As for the “shy or not shy” question – a phrase that has repeatedly come up in students’ recounting of the tests – Thomas claimed it had nothing to do with completely undressing.
“He advised that the ‘shy or not shy’ question was in reference to students taking off their shirt and not their underwear,” police wrote in summarizing their interview with Thomas.
Yet the routine of stripping naked for the tests was outlined by several former students interviewed by police and Matthew Oliverio, the attorney hired to conduct the school’s internal investigation. Oliverio ruled out any “grand conspiracy against Mr. Thomas,” saying many of the witnesses he interviewed denied ever talking to other former students. And he highlighted how Thomas’s statements were repeatedly and independently contradicted by the people interviewed.
“There is sufficient, corroborating and independent testimony from other witnesses that lead me to conclude that Mr. Thomas’ version of events is not entirely truthful or forthcoming,” Oliverio wrote. “To not admit that students were fat tested at times while naked establishes a character trait of untruthfulness that no School District should tolerate in any employee.”
Since Target 12 first reported Thomas’s alleged behavior in October, his attorney John MacDonald has never disputed that students were naked for the tests. Instead, he’s argued that the coach had consent forms and that he never broke the law.
“The testing program was solely designed to help student-athletes improve their performance,” MacDonald said during an interview last month. “This was a completely voluntary activity and students could enter or leave the program at will.”
MacDonald declined to comment for this report.
The Thomas matter is expected to play out in the legal arena, as both Neronha and Conlon are conducting parallel criminal and civil probes into the circumstances surrounding the fat testing. And Thomas isn’t the only person under scrutiny.
The internal investigation shows that some school officials – including Fossa, former athletic director Howie Hague and then-principal Denise Mancieri – knew as early as 2017 that Thomas had met alone with at least one student who was shirtless in his office.
In addition, the question of what — if any — oversight was put into place following the 2018 meeting to ensure Thomas was following the new rules has never been discussed publicly. Auger and most School Committee members have declined all former interview requests.
Asked for comment Thursday on Conlon’s statement about a student alleging he was fat-tested naked in 2019 and 2020, School Committee Chair Gregory Blasbalg said that while their attorney had received a letter from Conlon, she hadn’t actually received “any statement from anyone who alleges that they were naked fat tested after 2018.”
“Attorney Carroll is communicating and cooperating with Attorney Conlon on an ongoing basis,” he added.
Fossa, the former athletic director who implemented the new policies in 2018, died unexpectedly in 2020. Target 12 has filed a public records request for Fossa’s emails from 2017 until his death to review whether the Thomas controversy was ever addressed internally after 2018.
Carroll responded this week, saying it would cost $1,427 to review, redact and provide that information.
Conlon said he’s requested to meet with Carroll and Oliverio to discuss the Thomas situation, including how the school district’s oversight of Thomas “went awry.”
“The only thing that is clear is that it was not under control,” he said.
Tim White contributed to this report.