PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office has opened a federal investigation into whether the North Kingstown School Department failed to respond appropriately to reports of sexual misconduct by former high school coach Aaron Thomas involving students, Target 12 has learned from multiple sources.
Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha’s office sent a letter to North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger on Dec. 22, notifying him that a civil rights investigation has been opened under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act.
The civil investigation – which is running parallel to a criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office – is focused on whether the school district responded appropriately to multiple allegations against Thomas. The longtime former boys basketball coach has been accused of sexual molestation and getting former students to strip naked alone with him behind closed doors for so-called fat tests.
“We write to notify you that our office has opened an inquiry into allegations that the North Kingstown School Department inadequately responded to reports of employee-on-student sexual misconduct,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amy Romero and Kevin Hubbard wrote in the letter obtained by Target 12.
Thomas, who has not been charged criminally, has denied the allegations against him, arguing through attorneys that he never did anything unlawful.
Attorney General Peter Neronha’s probe will determine whether Thomas committed a crime, while the U.S. attorney’s investigation will likely focus more on the school district’s role over the years, including how other adults and staff responded to allegations made against the coach.
The U.S. attorney’s office underscored in the letter that the investigation “remains at a preliminary stage,” and that it has “reached no conclusions as to whether the district violated Title IV or any other federal law.”
But the investigation comes with new and serious implications for the North Kingstown School District, as institutions found in violation of Title IV can be penalized with anything from corrective action plans to a loss of federal funding.
As Target 12 first reported, Auger was made aware of the naked fat tests as early as 2018, and an internal investigation released in response to a public records request shows top administrators and teachers knew about at least one student who was shirtless alone with Thomas in 2017.
Auger and the North Kingstown School Committee’s attorney, Mary Ann Carroll, did not respond to a request for comment about the U.S. attorney’s letter this week. U.S. attorney spokesperson Jim Martin declined to comment.
The U.S. attorney’s office is seeking a plethora of school documents dating back to 2015, including personnel records, district policies, all reports of sexual discrimination and harassment, along with any records the district has relating to Thomas and allegations of naked fat tests.
“The Department is aware of several allegations of sexual misconduct against Aaron Thomas,” wrote the assistant U.S. attorneys in a section of the letter asking for all documents and communications tied to any current and past investigations.
The U.S. attorney’s office is also seeking all of Thomas’s employment records, a list of all the teams he coached and the identities of “all students that Thomas conducted ‘fat tests’ on, including the students’ name, athletic team membership (if applicable), date(s) of the test, and the name and job title of any other individual present in the room during the ‘test,’” according to the letter.
Target 12, which first reported about the allegations against Thomas, has interviewed nearly two dozen former students, parents and town officials who said the tests happened alone with Thomas inside his office. The students said he would direct them to strip down to their underwear before asking if they were “shy or not shy.”
If “not shy,” Thomas would tell them to get completely undressed and then use a caliper to pinch and measure their upper inner thighs near their genitalia, which he claimed was part of his body-fat testing program. Students said the testing — which happened quarterly, and sometimes monthly — was not connected to any exercise or dieting regimen. And professional trainers interviewed by Target 12 said getting completely naked for those types of tests is unnecessary.
Multiple students said Thomas had a CCTV camera system inside his office that looked out into the hallway, showing if anybody might be approaching. And at least one student said he had him strip naked for a hernia check — even though he hadn’t complained of any discomfort — while others said he would sometimes breathe heavily during the fat tests.
Before the town’s new high school was built in 2001, students said the naked fat tests were conducted inside a small closet in the locker room.
After Auger was notified about the behavior in 2018, the superintendent and others met with Thomas, who adamantly denied the students were ever naked. To address the issue, the school purchased a state-of-the-art $5,000 body-fat testing system and put it into the locker room. Thomas was told he could never do the tests alone with students again, according to a report.
In an email at the time, Auger described it as a “Great Solution!”
According to a recent letter to the School Department from Tim Conlon, a private attorney representing multiple former students, at least one former student has since come forward with allegations that he was naked fat tested by Thomas in 2019 and 2020, the years after the equipment and new policy were implemented.
“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 told Target 12 last month.
Asked about the federal investigation Friday, Conlon said, “I can confirm I have been in touch with the U.S. Attorney’s office and we — myself and my clients — are fully cooperating with their investigation.”
The North Kingstown School District has until Jan. 21 to provide responses to the U.S. attorney’s office, according to the letter.