PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When North Kingstown High School officials paid $5,000 in 2018 to buy a body-fat testing machine, the expectation was that the boys basketball coach would no longer have students strip naked alone in his office so he could perform the tests by hand.
But at least one former student-athlete says the coach, Aaron Thomas, continued the practice without interruption — except now he limited himself to conducting what he called “puberty tests.”
“I was naked in his office once again,” the former student told Target 12. “He didn’t do the typical skin-caliper method of testing after we got the machine, but I was still subject to random puberty tests.”
The former student was one of five men who attended North Kingstown High over the past three decades and sat down with Target 12 for their first-ever television interview about their experiences with Thomas. Earlier this week, retired Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl described the activity as “inappropriate, improper and not acceptable.”
For years, Thomas would bring teenage student-athletes into his office where he would have them strip down to their underwear, then ask if they were “shy or not shy.” If they responded “not shy,” Thomas would direct them to take off their underwear so he could use a caliper to measure their upper inner thighs near their genitalia – a part of the body that isn’t typically evaluated for a body-fat test.
“I didn’t want to be ‘not shy’ because my entire childhood I wanted to play varsity basketball for North Kingstown,” said another of the former students. “A lot of my heroes were ex-players that played there; people I looked up to, especially him. I really wanted him to like me, I wanted him to respect me.”
Several former students said Thomas also conducted other types of tests, including making them do stretches in front of him while completely naked, and said the routine had been going on since the early 1990s. While they say the naked testing was an “open secret” among students, school administrators and other adults have adamantly denied any knowledge about what Thomas was doing behind closed doors.
One former student, who played for Thomas two decades ago, said the coach got him to strip naked shortly after the student’s father had died – an experience he described as traumatic.
“It’s completely changed my life,” he told Target 12. “I went through a battle of addiction; he took advantage of me at a vulnerable time when I lost my dad. It was tough.”
Multiple students also talked about the surveillance camera that Thomas — an audiovisual teacher in addition to being a coach — kept outside of his office that pointed down an outside hallway, allowing him to monitor whether anyone was approaching.
“There was times when I was naked on the floor and another teacher approached the door from the outside and he would stop the fat test and say ‘just a minute,’” recalled one former student.
Another said, “More than once he slipped out when I was naked in his office, whether it was a teacher or a student coming to do the same thing after me. He would slip out the door, talk to the student for five minutes and come back in to continue to test.”
McGuirl’s report said the surveillance system has since been removed.
In 2018, one former student decided to approach then-superintendent Phil Auger to raise concerns about the tests. As a result, Auger and other top school officials decided to purchase the $5,000 body-fat testing machine, telling Thomas he could no longer test students alone.
McGuirl criticized the school district for never engaging in any subsequent oversight, and former students said Thomas continued his behavior as “puberty tests.”
“He would run his hands over my abs toward my groin under the pretext that once you hit puberty and start to develop muscles, you get cut there – you will get muscles cut there,” the student said. “He would do it between your pectoral muscles as well. But largely the outside edges of your abs and your hips. He would trace his fingers along that checking to see if you had hit puberty.”
Thomas continued to work and coach at the high school until 2021, even leading the basketball team to its first statewide championship in 2019. But his status changed after a different former student contacted Auger’s office, calling on them to look into the fat tests.
The North Kingstown School Committee subsequently voted to fire Thomas effective at the end of the 2020-21 school year. But he resigned before the termination took effect, and the reasons for his departure – a notably quiet exit considering his prominence and longevity at the school – weren’t disclosed to teachers, students or families.
Thomas was promptly hired by a Catholic middle school in South Kingstown, where he worked for about a month before Target 12 reached out for comment about the naked fat tests as part of its monthslong investigation into Thomas. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which oversees the middle school, said officials there were never informed about Thomas’s past behavior, and quickly fired him.
R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha has since launched a criminal investigation into Thomas. In an interview this week on 12 News at 4, Neronha said he expects to decide whether to bring criminal charges against Thomas “within weeks.” Through attorneys, Thomas has denied any wrongdoing, though he has acknowledged conducting the naked fat tests. On Thursday, Thomas’s defense attorney John MacDonald declined to comment.
Separately, Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha’s office is conducting a civil rights investigation into the Thomas scandal, examining whether the North Kingstown school leaders responded appropriately to past claims of sexual misconduct. And a handful of former students are pursuing civil lawsuits, a number that attorney Tim Conlon has indicated will only grow over time.
Conlon, who represents several of the former students, said the sit-down interview with Target 12 showed how far the young men have come in becoming comfortable with sharing their stories. And while he characterized the lack of outreach and support from the school district as “insult to injury,” Conlon said many of the former students have felt emboldened by the outpouring of support they’ve felt from the broader community, which has largely rallied for change.
“You go from an environment where you effectively feel muzzled about saying anything to reach out for help to an environment to people ensuring you that indeed you’re speaking up is welcomed,” Conlon said.
The students who talked with Target 12 said they couldn’t reflect back on their high school experiences and not think about Thomas. The coach’s behavior defined their time as students, and in some cases changed the trajectory of their lives.
“I was a big-time athlete, good at basketball, and I didn’t play after my freshmen year due to that,” one said. “It stripped me from being able to play a sport I loved.”
The five students estimated there were probably dozens – if not hundreds – of others like them who went through Thomas’s testing regimen, since he conducted the tests on most of the basketball players, along with student-athletes who played other sports, over nearly three decades.
Considering the numbers, the former students encouraged others to come forward and share their stories, publicly or privately, saying doing so has helped them deal with some of their mental anguish.
“What I’ve learned is you don’t need to know how you feel about it,” said one student. “In fact, talking to somebody is how you figure out how you feel about it. And I think what I’ve learned is I am pretty pissed off about it. That’s kind of gone away as I have made connections with other people – I don’t carry that on my own, I see that they are doing it too.”
Another former student said he didn’t even know the other men existed until he spoke out, adding that getting to know one another has made a big difference for him personally.
“It’s nothing but support from my parents, these guys, other people – so know you’re not alone,” he said, addressing others. “And when you feel the time is right, speak out.”
Eli Sherman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Tim White (email@example.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.
Chelsea Jones contributed to this report.