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‘Meet me in the closet’: Former RI students recall naked fat tests in 1990s

Target 12

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Several more former North Kingstown High School students have come forward to say they stripped naked for so-called “fat tests” while alone with the school’s former longtime boys basketball coach, including some who said their experiences dated back to the mid-1990s, several years earlier than previously reported.

Since Target 12 first publicly revealed ex-coach Aaron Thomas’s alleged behavior on Oct. 29, nearly a dozen more former students and parents have come forward to reveal experiences where either they themselves or their children got completely undressed for a body-fat test with Thomas. Multiple physical trainers have said the exam doesn’t require people to be naked.

The latest group of people to share their stories with Target 12 included two former students who said Thomas had been engaging in the behavior since at least the mid-1990s. Target 12 had previously only talked with people who recalled the tests happening in the 2000s and 2010s.

“It was uncomfortable,” said one of the two former athletes, who spoke with Target 12 on the condition of anonymity.

The former student said he played basketball for Thomas in the mid-1990s, and at the time the coach would conduct the tests in a small closet where he’d ask students to come in and strip naked alone with him. The closet was in the boys locker room, according to the former student.

“Meet me in the closet,” Thomas would tell members of the basketball team, the former student recalled during a phone interview with Target 12 on Tuesday.

“I dreaded it for days leading up,” the former student said.

Thomas taught communications including video production at North Kingstown High, and when a new high school was constructed in 2001 he got an office. Students who said they were fat tested in the 2000s and 2010s said their examinations took place in that office.

While the location changed, the routine remained consistent across the decades, according to those interviewed.

The former student coached by Thomas in the mid-1990s said he would enter the locker room closet and be told to strip down to his underwear. At that point, he said, Thomas would ask whether he was “shy or not shy.” If the student said “not shy,” the coach would tell him to completely undress before kneeling in front of him and measuring his body fat.

The former student said he and others who stripped naked for the tests felt obliged to say “not shy.”

“Kids felt pressured because they felt it would affect their playing time,” he said, adding that athletes were also worried it could affect their ability to keep advancing in the basketball program.

The former student alleged that once he was alone with Thomas in the closet, Thomas said to him, “Most guys are not shy.”

“How do you say ‘no’?” the former student said. “Only five guys get to play on the court at once.”

“Everyone kind of just did it,” he added. “Nobody talked about it.”

The former student said he eventually convinced himself to no longer do the tests because they made him feel so uncomfortable. But when he was a freshman he thought all the upperclassmen were doing it, he said, so he and other younger students would just follow along.

“You are growing up, it’s confusing,” he said. When Thomas asked the “shy or not shy” question, he said, Thomas “definitely guided you to feeling guilty or emasculated — that you weren’t man enough to do it.”

Thomas — who has not responded to requests for comment — is now under investigation by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha.

In his first interview about the Thomas case, during Tuesday’s edition of 12 News at 4, Neronha disclosed that his office is in the process of interviewing former students, school officials and coaches about how the players might have been victimized.

Story continues below video.

Neronha said investigators will also look at the timing of the alleged incidents in order to determine whether any statute of limitations may apply, and then review all the information to determine potential charges as well as if it’s “something that should be presented to a grand jury.”

Asked if he’s looking beyond Thomas’s behavior at the actions of other adults or institutions which might have failed to take action on allegations, the state’s top prosecutor said, “There’s nothing off the table.”

“There’s no limit on any investigation that we do,” he said.

Neronha did not name any specific statutes that might fit the Thomas allegations, but he said the investigation is being handled by the division in his office that deals with cases of sexual assault on children.

“This is work that we do all the time, unfortunately, in Rhode Island,” he said. “We have 10 lawyers that work these cases full-time.”

The attorney general’s office is investigating Thomas in collaboration with the North Kingstown Police Department, and Neronha said he retains “full confidence” in the department despite its statement on Sept. 1 that the case had been closed. The attorney general’s office later told Target 12 the case was still open.

R.I. State Police Col. James Manni has offered his department’s assistance with the Thomas investigation, according to Neronha.

“There is no doubt in my mind if I decide or determine that we need additional assistance, investigative support, then we’ll get it,” he said. “Look, there may be digital evidence here where the state police are uniquely suited to review that evidence.”

Besides the attorney general’s investigation, the North Kingstown School Department has reopened its own internal investigation into Thomas, which was originally launched in February but later closed. Some local elected officials have called for an independent probe after Target 12 reported that Superintendent Phil Auger was told about Thomas’s behavior as early as 2018.

The School Committee has confirmed top school officials were notified about Thomas in 2018. In a statement, the committee said the school officials talked to Thomas about his behavior at the time and instructed him to move the fat tests to the locker room with two other adults present.

The issue was not reported to the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families. Thomas remained at the high school for over two more years, helping the boys basketball team win the town’s first-ever state championship in 2019.

In a separate statement, School Committee member Jennifer Lima said, “Based on the evidence I’ve seen, I don’t believe there was a deliberate cover-up in 2018.” She emphasized that she was only speaking for herself and not the entire committee.

“But if there was, then people need to be held accountable,” Lima added. “Regardless, it’s clear we have a problem. We need to address it. And we have to throw open the curtains to do it.”

The School Committee voted to terminate Thomas last winter, after more former students came forward to the School Department and North Kingstown Police Department. He wound up resigning in June ahead of the scheduled termination and quickly secured a new job teaching social studies at Monsignor Clarke in South Kingstown.

The Catholic middle school — whose leaders have harshly criticized North Kingstown officials for not telling them the substance of the allegations against Thomas — placed him on administrative leave after Target 12 asked about the accusations two weeks ago, and fired him last week.

Like others who have talked with Target 12, the former student who played for Thomas in the mid-1990s said his thoughts turned back to the fat tests a few years ago when he saw news reports about the criminal convictions of Larry Nassar, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused hundreds of girls and young women.

“I remember watching Nassar and thinking, ‘Man, I hope to God Thomas stopped doing those tests,'” he said.

If you have more information about this story, please contact Target12@wpri.com.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.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.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Kim Kalunian (kkalunian@wpri.com) is a reporter and anchor for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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