NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Over more than two decades as the boys’ basketball coach at North Kingstown High School, Aaron Thomas became widely respected for his success on the court, culminating in the school’s first-ever state championship in 2019.
Yet within two years of that victorious season Thomas was out at North Kingstown High, quietly taking a new job at a middle school in a neighboring town. School officials made no announcement about the celebrated coach’s departure — until last week, when Thomas was put on administrative leave at his new school after the attorney general’s office confirmed it was investigating his behavior as a coach.
A months-long investigation by Target 12 discovered the reason for Thomas’s abrupt fall from grace: former student-athletes had come forward to accuse Thomas of making them meet him behind closed doors and strip naked — behavior they said he had engaged in for years.
Once naked, the coach would instruct the teenagers to perform stretches, sit cross-legged in front of him, and allow him to use a caliper to pinch and measure their body fat, according to documents obtained by Target 12 as well as interviews with ten former students, parents and town officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Two others sent emails to Target 12 detailing similar experiences.
The people who spoke to Target 12 about their experiences had either played for Thomas as students or were parents of children who played for him, over a period of time stretching from the early 2000s to as recently as 2019. Some played sports other than basketball.
“After I grew up, I started asking some real questions about what happened,” one former player said. “Did I need to be naked?”
As part of its investigation, Target 12 contacted five professional personal trainers. Each said it is unnecessary to be naked for such a test.
Thomas has not responded to multiple phone calls and emails from Target 12 seeking comment.
‘You wanted to get asked’
Examinations of body fat are known technically as skinfold caliper measurements, but students in North Kingstown just called them “fat tests.”
And tests were done without parental consent or anyone else present, according to the people interviewed along with police records obtained by Target 12.
Several students said the naked testing struck them as “weird” at the time, especially because they didn’t appear to be connected to any type of exercising or dieting regimen. But because it was their coach asking them to take off their clothes, they said they trusted him. And several explained that they were never physically forced to get naked.
Each student interviewed separately by Target 12 remembered a similar routine. They said Thomas would first ask them to strip down to their underwear, then ask if they were “shy or not shy” — a phrase that stayed with many of them.
If shy, they said they could keep their underwear on. If not shy, they were asked to get naked, according to each former student that was interviewed.
While both options were offered, some of the former students said they felt that identifying as shy and keeping their underwear on made them look weak in front of a person who would ultimately decide whether they could be trusted on the basketball court or as an elite athlete. You didn’t want to be shy, they said.
“The best athletes were asked to get body fat tested, so you wanted to get asked,” one player recalled. “I was 14 when it first started.”
Multiple people who talked to Target 12 said the testing happened quarterly and in some cases more often. Every former student and parent interviewed by Target 12 said the tests happened inside Thomas’s office at the school, where he taught communications in addition to coaching basketball. Three students described the office as having a monitor connected to a camera that looked out into the hall.
“One day, he noticed that someone was coming down the hallway,” said one student, remembering an incident he said happened when he was 15 years old. “He stopped testing and went out and told the person to go away. I was completely naked.”
In addition to other areas of the body, multiple former students said, Thomas would use the caliper tool to pinch areas around the upper inner thigh near their genitals.
Several former students said Thomas would kneel in front of their naked bodies to conduct the tests.
One former student said he told police on one occasion Thomas took it a step further. The student said he’d already gone through years of fat testing when the coach told him that he also needed to be checked for a hernia, even though the student hadn’t complained about any physical discomfort.
The former student said Thomas then used his hand to apply pressure above and below his genital area. He said he never wanted to be alone with Thomas again after that interaction.
A fifth student, who said he was fat tested during three of his four years at North Kingstown High, said his final test came at the same time he was upset about losing one of his parents. The student said he was standing naked in Thomas’s office when the coach put his hands on his shoulders and told him that he wanted to be there for him.
“That’s when I thought — this was about more than fat testing,” the student said. “Everyone was saying they were there for me at the time. But not when I was naked.”
‘This matter remains under review’
The North Kingstown Police Department confirmed they were notified about Thomas’ behavior as early as 2018.
A former student-athlete said he felt emboldened to come forward that year following the criminal convictions of Larry Nassar, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused hundreds of girls and young women.
“Went into NKPD today,” the former student wrote in a 2018 text message sent to several people and reviewed by Target 12. “Officially off my shoulders onto theirs.”
The town police started investigating the matter closely earlier this year, after the FBI reached out to the department to follow up on an anonymous tip the bureau had received about Thomas’s behavior, according to records obtained by Target 12.
The subsequent police investigation lasted for months, but North Kingstown police ultimately concluded there wasn’t enough evidence against Thomas to criminally charge him. And Capt. John Urban Jr. released a statement in September saying the detective division investigated the matter, which was reviewed by Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office.
“We were unable to develop probable cause to criminally charge the now-former employee,” Urban wrote the statement shared with Target 12, adding that there was no longer an active investigation into the matter.
Last week, however, the attorney general’s spokesperson refuted Urban’s assertion.
“This matter remains under review,” the spokesperson, Kristy dosReis, told Target 12. She declined further comment.
The North Kingstown Police Department would not discuss specifics about the Thomas investigation, saying only “the department recognizes the role the media plays in our society and we will always cooperate with the needs it serves while operating within the confines of the law.”
But Target 12 obtained an email between North Kingstown Det. Christopher Mulligan and an attorney representing one of the people who came forward to corroborate the fat testing. The detective acknowledged Thomas’s actions were concerning, but he reiterated that they couldn’t conclude the behavior rose to the level of a crime.
“Although the coach’s practice of administering ‘fat tests’ is troubling, especially since there were no consent forms, parent notifications or other witnesses present during the tests, we don’t see probable cause to conclude Mr. Thomas conducted the tests for his sexual gratification or arousal,” Mulligan wrote in the email.
The detective also explained that most people they interviewed as part of the investigation “felt there was no sexual overtones associated with the test and it does not appear he intentionally touched the private of the participants.”
‘Cannot legally comment’
Even as the police investigation was underway earlier this year, the North Kingstown School Department launched its own internal review of the allegations against Thomas, according to a recent letter sent to parents from the superintendent.
An internal report was eventually produced, and in February members of the School Committee met briefly to approve a recommendation to terminate an unnamed tenured teacher, according to an online recording of the meeting. Target 12 later confirmed the teacher was Thomas, who in June decided to resign ahead of being terminated.
Despite more than two decades serving the school district as a celebrated boys’ basketball coach and teacher, Thomas’s departure wasn’t even acknowledged with an announcement. When the coach abruptly stopped showing up for basketball games and practices earlier this year, local newspaper The Independent reported that his absence was being attributed to an “undisclosed medical issue.”
School officials have been unwilling to publicly discuss the circumstances surrounding his resignation.
In an email seen by Target 12, at least one top school official questioned whether the allegations brought to police in 2018 were shared with the school department. But records and interviews by Target 12 show at least one student contacted another top school official about it as early as August 2018.
Officials at the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families confirmed Monday that they received a report related to Thomas earlier this year, but not before that. Under state law, adults are legally obligated to report any potential abuse of children to DCYF if they have any “reasonable cause to know or suspect that any child has been abused or neglected.”
“The department contacted the North Kingstown Police Department (NKPD) and was notified a police investigation was already underway,” DCYF spokesperson Kelly Brennan said in a statement. “The department has followed up with both NKPD and the attorney general’s office.”
Target 12 has requested to interview Superintendent Phil Auger twice about these allegations since August. Presented with some of Target 12’s findings in October, the superintendent argued he is legally prohibited from discussing the matter.
“The North Kingstown School Committee and School Department cannot legally comment on personnel issues regarding current or former employees,” Auger told Target 12.
Auger did not respond to several follow-up questions and did not provide a specific statute that would prevent him from discussing the issue.
On Saturday — the day after Target 12 reported Thomas had been suspended from his new job due to the attorney general’s investigation — Auger sent an email to North Kingstown parents about the situation. He said he wanted them to “be aware of the actions the district took regarding the issue.”
“Prior to his resignation the school department received an allegation regarding his job performance,” Auger wrote of Thomas. “Upon receiving the information, the district immediately placed Mr. Thomas on an administrative leave.”
Target 12 has interviewed multiple people who say they presented their allegations about Thomas to school officials. It’s unclear what individual allegation Auger was referring to in the email to parents.
‘Just think about it’
After his resignation from North Kingstown High, Thomas was hired over the summer as a middle-school social studies teacher at Monsignor Clarke School, a Catholic school in neighboring South Kingstown that serves families from 11 local parishes.
When Target 12 initially reached out to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence last month to discuss Thomas’s employment, diocesan spokesperson Michael Kieloch said the school wasn’t aware of the allegations before hiring him and that he had passed all background checks.
Kieloch also said the North Kingstown Police Department had told church officials that the allegations about Thomas involved alleged incidents that had occurred 16 years ago and had been unsubstantiated. Police also told the diocese that the attorney general’s office was on board with that conclusion, Kieloch said.
“When we hire all teachers and employees we do certain background checks … and there’s nothing in Mr. Thomas’s records,” Kieloch told Target 12. “There’s no prior arrests that would have disqualified us from hiring him as a teacher.”
But a day later, Kieloch contacted Target 12 to say Thomas had been placed on administrative leave after the diocese heard from the attorney general’s office.
“The Diocese of Providence was informed today by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General that an investigation has been opened into allegations of misconduct concerning a teacher at Monsignor Clarke School in Wakefield while he was a teacher and coach at a different, non-Catholic school,” Kieloch said.
Kieloch added that the diocese takes the protection of minors seriously and will cooperate fully with law enforcement and the attorney general.
Several of the students, parents and town officials who spoke with Target 12 said they had done so now because they feared Thomas’s behavior might continue unchecked for years to come. And they said they didn’t want any other underage children put into situations like the ones they experienced.
“Just think about it,” one said. “If you have kids who are 14 years old, would this be OK?”
If you have more information about this story, please contact Target12@wpri.com.
Steph Machado contributed to this report.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.