NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — North Kingstown school officials on Saturday defended their actions amid a growing scandal surrounding their former boys basketball coach, pushing back at suggestions that administrators mishandled the matter while promising a further review.
The North Kingstown School Committee held an unusual meeting behind closed doors that lasted about six hours to discuss decisions involving the former coach, Aaron Thomas. He is accused of instructing student-athletes to strip naked for so-called “fat tests” while they were alone with him in his office.
Members of the committee emerged from the school department’s locked central administration building around 3 p.m. alongside Superintendent Phil Auger. They distributed a two-page written statement but refused to answer follow-up questions from reporters waiting outside.
“I don’t have a statement right now,” Auger told Target 12. “We sent statements to the community.” Asked repeatedly to stop and take questions, Auger pushed through the reporters and closed the door to his car before driving away.
Protestors were gathered outside the meeting, and some North Kingstown residents on hand expressed outrage over the revelations. “This seems like a big old coverup to me,” said one, Gary Lanowy. “For this to go and get brushed under the carpet — somebody has to be held accountable.”
As Target 12 revealed starting on Oct. 29, multiple former North Kingstown High School student-athletes said for years Thomas would meet alone with some students in his office, then ask if they were “shy or not shy.” If they replied “not shy,” he would instruct them to strip naked so he could conduct a body-fat test.
Documents reviewed by Target 12 show Thomas had been doing the tests in his office, alone with the students, without parental consent. Several said they were uncomfortable with it.
“After I grew up, I started asking some real questions about what happened,” said one former basketball player. “Did I need to be naked?”
Thomas has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
While one former student brought concerns about Thomas to Auger as early as 2018, it was not until February 2021 — when additional people came forward to complain about the coach — that the School Committee voted to terminate him. Thomas quietly resigned in June before his termination took effect, and by September had landed a job at a parochial school in South Kingstown.
In their written statement Saturday, School Committee members said they commissioned an independent investigation of Thomas last February and are currently “unaware of any information that indicates that any member of the administration acted inappropriately with regards to the investigation.” However, they said they voted Saturday to reopen the investigation to determine whether action should have been taken against Thomas before this year.
The School Committee gave no indication that Auger or other senior school officials are in danger of losing their jobs. The investigation continues to be conducted by Matthew Oliverio, a lawyer in North Kingstown. (The committee’s statement misstated his name as “Michael Oliverio.”)
Thomas has not cooperated with the investigation, according to the committee.
School Committee members acknowledged that the former student approached Auger to express concern about Thomas and the fat tests in 2018, a fact Target 12 first reported on Thursday. But they claimed that the former student did not explicitly tell Auger he was naked with Thomas.
“Aside from feeling uncomfortable, the individual did not allege that any inappropriate contact occurred at the time,” school officials said in their statement.
The former student has told Target 12 he did tell Auger he was naked for the test, and said he told Auger he knew of several other former students who went through the same test completely nude. A second person interviewed by Target 12 said the same former student told him about the conversation with Auger — including the disclosure that he was nude — around the time it happened.
Following that former student’s allegation in 2018, Thomas had a meeting with Auger as well as the high school’s principal and athletic director. At that meeting, Thomas “was instructed that any testing of athletes be done in the locker rooms, with at least two adults present,” according to Saturday’s statement from the School Committee.
The statement did not address whether the 2018 allegation caused Auger or any other school official to interview additional former students. It also does not say what steps were taken in 2019 or 2020 to ensure Thomas’s compliance with the locker-room directive. (Thomas led the basketball team to a first-ever state championship in 2019.)
The R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families has said the child-welfare agency received no reports about Thomas until this year.
The School Committee’s members said their February vote to terminate Thomas occurred after a second former student came forward to allege that in 2006 Thomas had conducted a naked “fat test” on him while they were alone together in Thomas’s office. They said this second former student also alleged “that Mr. Thomas touched him inappropriately in at least one of those sessions.”
North Kingstown police investigated but on Sept. 1 told school officials there was no basis for criminal charges against Thomas, the statement said.
However, Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office has since confirmed there is an ongoing criminal investigation into Thomas. No charges have been filed against Thomas to date.
The North Kingstown School Committee’s statement Saturday also escalated the war of words between them and their counterparts at Monsignor Clarke School, the Catholic middle school in South Kingstown which hired Thomas at the start of this school year. (The school fired Thomas on Friday.)
The School Committee statement said, “The Monsignor Clarke School contacted the [North Kingstown] administration on their first day of school, Sept. 1, 2021, requesting a recommendation for Aaron Thomas. No recommendation was provided by any administrator at the North Kingstown School Department.”
That version of events drew an immediate rebuke from Michael Kieloch, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which oversees Monsignor Clarke School.
Kieloch tweeted: “What the NK school committee blatantly omits: NKHS Principal Morse actually talked on the phone *about Thomas* when Msgr Clarke School contacted them. That was their opportunity to say literally *anything* to warn his next school and instead she withheld ALL of this.”
The principal of Monsignor Clarke told parents Friday that he first learned about the substance of the allegations against Thomas when a Target 12 reporter contacted him for comment late last month. The R.I. Department of Education has also confirmed parochial schools are unable to access the department’s internal database of teacher certifications, which has an alert placed on Thomas.
The five members of the North Kingstown School Committee are Chairman Gregory Blasbalg, first elected in 2014; Vice-Chair Lisa Hildebrand, first appointed in 2018; Jennifer Hoskins, first elected in 2016; Jacob Mather, first appointed in 2019; and Jennifer Lima, first elected in 2020. All five are Democrats.
Auger has been the superintendent in North Kingstown since 2011.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram