SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The former North Kingstown high school boys basketball coach accused of getting scores of underage students to strip naked for so-called “fat tests” over multiple decades was arraigned Friday in R.I. Superior Court on criminal charges.
Aaron Thomas pleaded not guilty to second-degree sexual assault and second-degree sexual molestation. He will be released on $10,000 personal recognizance and has agreed not to teach or coach.
R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and North Kingstown police filed the case against Thomas last month.
Assistant Attorney General Meagan Thomson asked the judge to impose a no-contact order with the two victims in this case and a “blanket” no contact for all juveniles 16 years of age or younger. The judge declined the blanket no contact but granted the other.
The judge also denied the state’s request to impose a $30,000 bail saying Thomas did not pose as a flight risk since it has been a highly-publicized case for nearly a year and the defendant never attempted to flee.
Outside of court Thomas’ attorney John MacDonald spoke for his client.
“He has dedicated his professional life to the students of North Kingstown. He adamantly denies any criminal conduct whatsoever,” MacDonald said. “Scores of students have been interviewed by North Kingstown police to say they participated in this program voluntarily they benefits from this program and nothing of a sexual nature ever took place. Aaron Thomas looks forward to his day in court and thank you for respecting his privacy.”
The criminal offenses stem from an eight-month law enforcement probe spurred by a Target 12 investigation last October that examined how Thomas would regularly get students to strip naked alone with him behind closed doors for body-fat tests. The program — which generations of students considered an open secret at the school — went unchecked for nearly three decades, despite past attempts by students to sound the alarm that Thomas was being inappropriate.
Prosecutors have accused Thomas of engaging in sexual contact with two victims, according to Neronha and North Kingstown Police Chief Patrick Flanagan. The molestation charge stems from alleged sexual contact between Thomas and a victim between 2000 and 2002, according to law enforcement. The sexual assault charge is tied to alleged sexual contact with a victim between 2019 and 2020.
As part of their investigation, law enforcement officials said they interviewed 30 former students who attended North Kingstown High from the early 1990s through 2020. But prosecutors likely struggled to apply additional charges in the case due to the brief three-year statute of limitations tied to the second-degree sexual assault charge.
The limited window means the second degree sexual assault law wouldn’t apply in this case for students who were naked with Thomas at any time before 2019. While Neronha has never said that explicitly about this case, his office has expressed frustration with the three-year timeframe while discussing Thomas, and tried unsuccessfully to get the law changed earlier this year.
The child molestation law, meanwhile, doesn’t have a statute of limitations — but the charge only applies in cases where the victim is 14 years and younger. Students are typically about 14 years old when they enter high school.
Since Target 12 first reported about the naked fat tests last year, dozens of former students have come forward to allege the former coach would bring them into his office as teenage student-athletes where he would have them strip down to their underwear. Once partly undressed, Thomas would ask them if they were “shy or not shy,” according to the students.
If the students responded, “not shy,” Thomas would direct them to take off their underwear so he could use a caliper tool 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,” a former student said earlier this year during a televised interview with Target 12. “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.”
The scandal has rocked the North Kingstown community, resulting in multiple resignations, lawsuits and investigations into how testing carried on for so many years without scrutiny.
Timothy Conlon, a Providence attorney representing several of the alleged victims of Thomas, issued a statement on Friday afternoon.
“We commend the Attorney General for pursuing justice and accountability with Coach Thomas,” Conley said. “We will not comment further on the criminal matter – we are focused on ongoing efforts to pursue accountability and justice with the officials and institutions responsible for practices in the schools that were ignored for decades.”
In addition to school and city investigations, Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha’s office has launched a civil-rights probe into whether the school responded appropriately to allegations of sexual misconduct over the years.
Earlier this year, Cunha told 12 News his goal was to finish his investigation before the next school years starts. North Kingstown starts school on Sept. 6.
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.