SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The Monsignor Clarke School has fired teacher Aaron Thomas one week after placing him on administrative leave amid a growing scandal involving allegations he had underage students strip naked alone with him while serving as the boys basketball coach in a neighboring town.
Arthur Lisi, the Catholic middle school’s principal, announced Thomas’s termination in a letter sent to parents Friday. He also defended the initial decision to hire Thomas at the start of this school year, offering scathing criticism of the information he said Thomas’s previous employer, the North Kingstown School Department, provided while he was being vetted.
“This has been a very difficult week for many in our closely-knit community,” Lisi wrote in the letter obtained by Target 12. “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.”
Thomas quietly resigned from North Kingstown High School in June. No announcement or explanation was provided to the community about his departure, despite his more than two decades as a high school teacher and celebrated coach, including winning the town’s first-ever state championship for boys basketball in 2019.
As Target 12 first reported last Friday, Thomas’s departure from North Kingstown High came after multiple former student athletes came forward to accuse the longtime coach of having them completely undress to undergo so-called “fat tests.” Several physical trainers interviewed by Target 12 said such an examination doesn’t require participants to be naked.
Thomas resigned before a vote to terminate him by the North Kingstown School Committee could take effect. He has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Target 12.
Lisi said Monsignor Clarke did a full criminal background check on Thomas and examined his professional references before the parochial school hired him. (Target 12 has confirmed that the R.I. Department of Education placed a legal alert on Thomas’s teacher certification in August, but the internal system showing the alert is not accessible to non-public schools.)
Lisi said he reached out to North Kingstown “to make sure Mr. Thomas was the right person for our middle school.”
North Kingstown High School principal Barbara Morse “had the opportunity to warn us and instead withheld all negative information,” Lisi wrote.
North Kingstown has pushed back at Lisi’s claims by sharing a voicemail that Lisi left with Morse. The message confirms Lisi reached out to Morse for a reference, but it also suggests Thomas may have already been hired at the time of the call.
“Dr. Lisi only called Dr. Morse, principal of NKHS,” North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger wrote in a short message that accompanied the voicemail. “Dr. Lisi did not contact me or anyone else in the North Kingstown School Department.”
However, the voicemail itself doesn’t refute the allegation that North Kingstown officials failed to warn their counterparts at Monsignor Clarke about the allegations against Thomas, a point Lisi reiterated in Friday’s letter to parents.
In addition to the back-and-forth with North Kingstown, Lisi also explained that the Catholic school had received an “anonymous and vague” call two weeks ago warning them to “look into Aaron Thomas.”
At the time, Lisi said Monsignor Clarke officials reached out to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence — which oversees parochial schools — to report the message, and learned the diocese’s Office of Compliance had received a similar anonymous voicemail.
The compliance office is led by Kevin O’Brien, a former longtime R.I. State Police major, who then reached out to the North Kingstown Police Department. But Lisi said the police also didn’t share information about Thomas.
“Pursuant to an Access to Public Records Act request, a week later, they declined to release any information citing privacy concerns,” Lisi said.
Last Thursday, in the final stages of a months-long investigation into Thomas’s behavior, Target 12 reached out to the diocese seeking comment and explaining the specific accusations against the former coach. Lisi said the inquiry from Target 12 “was the first instance we learned about the full scope and nature of the allegations,” and that Thomas was shortly thereafter placed on administrative leave.
“The Attorney General’s office then notified Mr. O’Brien that they were reopening their investigation into Mr. Thomas and within hours we suspended him and escorted him from the property,” Lisi wrote in the letter.
R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office has confirmed prosecutors are investigating the Thomas allegations. To date, he has not been charged with any criminal offenses, and a North Kingstown police official previously said the department believed the naked interactions did not constitute a crime.
North Kingstown did not make any public statement regarding Thomas until after Target 12 first reported on his alleged behavior last Friday. The following day, Superintendent Auger sent a message to families arguing the district took action after they learned about the allegations earlier this year.
But Target 12 has interviewed multiple people who said Auger was notified directly about Thomas’s behavior as early as 2018. It’s unclear whether Auger or the School Department took any action at that time. Auger has declined repeated requests for an interview. The School Committee has scheduled an unusual meeting on Saturday to discuss personnel matters and other issues in executive session, meaning it will not be open to the public.
Police in North Kingstown were also told about the naked fat tests in 2018, according to a news release sent to Target 12 in September.
“While the specifics of all these quickly developing events can be debated endlessly, what I want to emphasize is that we followed up aggressively and promptly to everything we received and acted prudently and responsibly,” Lisi wrote. “Where others failed to act, we did. Mr. Thomas was employed in North Kingstown Schools for approximately 30 years. He was here for approximately 30 days.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook