NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – A newly released internal investigation shows a former North Kingstown High School student accused Aaron Thomas of sexually molesting him, detailing the most damning allegation made yet against the former boys basketball coach.
The allegation was outlined in an 87-page report from an internal investigation commissioned by the North Kingstown School District that was completed in June and released in response to a Target 12 public records request. As part of the investigation into allegations of so-called naked “fat tests,” attorney Matthew Oliverio reviewed emails and statements provided to police and interviewed 13 people.
In his findings, Oliverio highlighted one allegation from a former student that he suggested stood out from all the others, saying the student “does not mince words when he claims that since the age of 13, he was sexually molested by Mr. Thomas on a quarterly basis during his high school years.”
“Although he denies penetration while being fat tested, he claims that the coach would often use his fingers by lifting his genitals, run his fingers between his anus and genitals on the pretense of checking for hernia, while breathing heavily in his face,” Oliverio wrote.
Thomas — who resigned earlier this year before a vote to terminate him could take effect — has not been charged with any crimes and he’s denied doing anything illegal. But he’s currently the subject of a criminal investigation led by Attorney General Peter Neronha.
Oliverio lamented in his report that he didn’t get a chance to personally interview Thomas, as the former coach’s attorney, Joseph Pezza, along with his union representative didn’t allow it. They pointed to the ongoing investigation by the North Kingstown Police Department.
But Oliverio cited a police interview with Thomas in which the coach adamantly denied ever conducting the body-fat tests on students while they were naked. That statement has been disputed by more than a dozen former students, parents and town officials interviewed by Target 12.
The former students said Thomas would kneel in front of them for the tests while they were naked, then measure the upper inner thigh near their genitals. Their stories were largely echoed in Oliverio’s report, and he questioned Thomas’s statements, saying the coach’s denials are “inconsistent with the greater weight of evidence.”
“Was Mr. Thomas engaged in conduct, inappropriate or not, that he was attempting to conceal to save him embarrassment? Or was it something more sinister than that,” Oliverio wrote in the report. “I cannot provide these answers as I did not have the opportunity to interview him.”
Oliverio said he wasn’t tasked “to determine if probable cause existed for the commission of a crime,” but concluded the former students and witnesses’ statements were “true and accurate.” As a result, he wrote that Thomas violated long-standing school policies prohibiting sexual harassment.
Oliverio also noted that even if some students didn’t believe there was any “sexual connotation” to the naked fat tests, they constituted “voyeuristic behavior over a long period of time.”
“It is important to consider that although these students may not have articulated an unsafe or threatening educational environment, these students ranged in age from 14 to 18 years of age, a time during which they experience much peer pressure, social anxiety all the while going through a maturation process,” Oliverio said.
In addition to Oliverio’s findings, the report also outlined new information about what was known inside the School Department about the fat tests, raising questions about why so little information came out internally and externally before this year.
For example, in June 2017, math teacher and former athletic director Howie Hague told Oliverio he walked by Thomas’s classroom and saw the then-coach was alone with a boy who had “just his shorts on.”
“Although he believed there was no ill intent, it strikes him that given today’s day and age that a teacher should not be alone with a student in the classroom, particularly if they are in a state of undress,” Oliverio wrote in the report.
Hague said he had a discussion with Thomas and “knew the optics of the situation would subject him to scrutiny,” so he reported the incident to then-principal Denise Mancieri and the athletic director at the time, Dick Fossa, who has since died.
“He went in and described what he had observed to Dr. Mancieri and said that ‘I’ve got it under control,’” Oliverio wrote in the report. “Mr. Hague mentioned to Mr. Thomas that this sort of testing should be done in the locker room. Several weeks later Dick Fossa came to him and said that the issue had been addressed.”
When Oliverio interviewed Mancieri about the incident in 2017, he wrote “she assumed that both Howie Hauge and Dick Fossa had attended to the situation.” She also told Oliverio that she did not write anything down at the time and that “unless she writes things down, her memory gets a little vague.”
“She admits now that the optics certainly do not look good,” Oliverio wrote.
Even though the issue was raised in 2017, the testing continued for at least another year, until a former student approached Superintendent Phil Auger to complain about the naked fat tests. Auger has claimed the former student never said he was naked for the tests, which has been disputed by both the student and a private attorney, Tim Conlon. (The report notes Auger also asked Thomas at the time whether students were naked for the tests.)
Oliverio also made a series of recommendations to the School Department, ultimately concluding: “Mr. Thomas poses a potential threat and liability to the North Kingstown High School community if he were to continue in the employment of the School District.”
“Furthermore, to not admit that students were fat tested at times while naked establishes a character trait of untruthfulness that no School District should tolerate in any employee,” he wrote.
After Thomas resigned, he was hired by Monsignor Clarke, a private Catholic middle school in South Kingstown. School officials quickly fired Thomas after Target 12 contacted them about Thomas’s past, claiming the North Kingstown School District never told them anything about the allegations.
The North Kingstown School Committee was expected to discuss the report during its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday.
In a prepared statement provided to Target 12 by the committee’s lawyer, Chairman Gregory Blasbalg noted that the committee has directed Oliverio to expand his investigation to examine whether “any school district administrator knew about the inappropriate manner in which Mr. Thomas conducted ‘fat-testing’ of students.”
The second investigation is expected to be completed sometime late next month, he added.
“We understand the gravity of some of the report’s findings and we understand that the report is disturbing,” Blasbalg said.
The R.I. Attorney General’s Office is encouraging anyone with information related to the North Kingstown High School investigation to call (401) 268-2169.
Sarah Guernelli contributed to this report.