PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would mandate public and private schools share information about fired teachers, spurred by the ongoing criminal investigation of former North Kingstown High School coach and teacher Aaron Thomas.
Yet it appears unlikely the measure would have prevented Thomas from getting hired at a neighboring Catholic school after he quietly resigned from North Kingstown under a cloud last year amid allegations he spent years bringing students behind closed doors to strip naked for so-called “fat tests.”
“That’s a loophole that is difficult to prevent,” said state Rep. Joseph McNamara, who sponsored the legislation, when asked about the Thomas scenario.
McNamara’s legislation would require governing bodies of different types of schools – both public and private – to submit the identity of teachers who have been fired for cause to the R.I. Department of Education.
The list would then be accessible to other schools whenever they are considering whether to hire a new teacher, effectively providing clearer information to protect against hiring educators with unethical or dubious work histories.
McNamara, a Warwick Democrat who served as a public school administrator and educator for 37 years, said he believes the bill would help weed out teachers who have “unprofessional and unethical conflicts.”
“It’s very important when we’re hiring them for a classroom that, if they have been dismissed for good cause, that we have a record of that – that public and private and charter schools can check to keep those bad apples out of circulation and to prevent whatever the behavior was,” McNamara explained.
But Thomas wasn’t fired for just cause — he wasn’t even fired at all. The former high school boys basketball coach resigned shortly before a vote to terminate him could take effect last June.
The North Kingstown school district never made the disturbing allegations against Thomas public, and he was quickly rehired at the Catholic school Monsignor Clarke in South Kingstown.
Under the House bill, even if Monsignor Clarke could access a state-administered list of fired teachers, Thomas’s name wouldn’t have been included.
“In cases like that, eventually you would hope, someone would also need a reference,” McNamara said when asked about the Thomas scenario.
Monsignor Clarke school officials say they did reach out to North Kingstown for a reference about Thomas, and have asserted that North Kingstown administrators didn’t share any concerns about his past record – even though they were fully aware of the allegations.
Shortly after Target 12 first reached out to Monsignor Clarke in October, the Catholic school fired Thomas and sharply criticized North Kingstown for not sharing the information.
“We have processed a series of emotions, including frustration knowing that during the hiring process we contacted North Kingstown High School which withheld from us the allegations, investigation, suspension, and planned termination of Mr. Thomas,” Monsignor Clark principal Arthur Lisi said at the time.
Thomas, who has denied through attorneys any wrongdoing, is currently under investigation by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office. The Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office has launched a probe into whether the North Kingstown school district violated any civil rights, and a former student and his father recently filed the first civil lawsuit against the district and its educators.
After Thomas resigned, North Kingstown contacted the state’s Education Department, and an “alert” was subsequently placed on his teaching certificate. But the database is only accessible to a small group of state and local public school administrators, and the House bill is silent on whether the alerts – which range from unpaid application fees to allegations under investigation – would also need be shared between public and private schools.
The Education Department — which has refused to disclose how many public-school educators currently have alerts on their teaching certificates — supports McNamara’s bill.
“The legislation will improve collaboration among public and private schools and help better inform school hiring decisions,” spokesperson Victor Morente wrote in an email.
The list of fired teachers created under McNamara’s bill would also not be accessible to families or through the Access to Public Records Act, which he argued was because the firing would still be “considered part of a personnel record.”
Asked why parents and the broader public shouldn’t be allowed to access the list, McNamara suggested that information should be protected unless a teacher has broken the law.
“If they committed a crime, it would be public — but just behavior that is questionable, unethical, et cetera,” shouldn’t be public record, he said.
The bill next goes before the state Senate for consideration. So far, no senator has introduced a companion bill, and Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said Senate President Dominick Ruggerio hasn’t taken a position.
“The Senate president would wait for the committee to examine the bill before taking a position on it,” he said Wednesday.
Tim White contributed to this report.