PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The North Kingstown school committee member who spoke out about her son being subjected to naked “fat tests” is recusing herself from all future decision-making related to the ongoing scandal surrounding the former high school boys basketball coach, Target 12 has learned.
Jennifer Lima, who was elected as a committee member roughly a year ago, said the decision to recuse herself came after she consulted the state’s Ethics Commission about whether she had a conflict. Her son played varsity basketball for Aaron Thomas in the late 2000s, and she said he was one of numerous student athletes over multiple decades who was asked to strip naked to participate in the coach’s so-called “fat test” program.
“Based on input from the R.I. Ethics Commission, I have made the decision to recuse myself from any involvement with the Aaron Thomas matter,” Lima told Target 12 in a statement. “I do not think I have a conflict of interest. But in order to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety I have come to believe this is the right course of action.”
As part of the fat-test program, student athletes would be asked to completely undress alone with Thomas behind closed doors. Once naked, the former coach would use a caliper to take skin-fold measurements of their body fat in various places, including their upper inner thighs around their genitalia. The tests happened either in his office or in a closet since at least the mid-1990s, according to several former student athletes interviewed by Target 12.
Thomas, who has not been criminally charged, has argued through a lawyer the tests happened with student and parental consent, and that he did nothing illegal. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha is reviewing the matter as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
In February, after a former student came forward to the North Kingstown School Department to raise concerns about Thomas and the fat-testing program, Lima said she believed at that point her son was likely one of the people who went through the program.
Lima said she immediately told Superintendent Phil Auger and the School Committee’s lawyer, Mary Ann Carroll, and then the other committee members at the next meeting. She also shared her son’s name with investigators. But Lima said it wasn’t until after Target 12 first reported about the fat-testing program that she had a conversation with her son about his experience.
“It was at that point that he confirmed to me that he had been a part of the ‘naked fat tests,'” Lima said, adding that her son found the tests “weird,” but he wasn’t traumatized as a result.
In February, the School Committee — including Lima — voted to fire Thomas, who later resigned quietly before the termination took place in June. He was quickly hired by a Catholic school, which later claimed they were never told about the allegations against him until after a Target 12 inquiry. The school promptly fired Thomas, and sharply criticized North Kingstown for not alerting them to the coach’s history.
The controversy surrounding Thomas’s departure from the North Kingstown school district was never discussed publicly until after the story came out. Lima, who spoke publicly last month with Target 12 and The Boston Globe about her family’s experience, argued the fact that her son played for Thomas didn’t play a role in her decisions surrounding the issue.
“I know that decisions I make are not affected by my son’s involvement,” she said. “Honestly, everyone should be proceeding in this matter as if it was their child affected. But this case is too important to allow any outside noise to detract from it.”
Target 12 has interviewed more than a dozen former students, parents and town officials who said the inappropriate tests went on for years unchecked. Residents have since called for the resignation of School Committee members and Superintendent Auger.
Auger, who was told about the fat testing as early as 2018, said he told Thomas at that time they had to stop happening in his office and required other witnesses present. Auger has denied that he was told the tests were done in the nude. A parent this week told the Town Council the inappropriate tests continued until at least 2020.
“That’s two full years after Dr. Auger had a talk with Mr. Thomas,” Kim Lanowy, mother of two sons who graduated after 2018, told the locally elected officials.
The School Committee last month voted to reopen its investigation that it started in February. The Town Council this week voted to hire retired Superior Court Justice Susan McGuirl to review the investigation. Lima, who wasn’t involved in the school system in 2018, is the only person so far to recuse themselves from any decision-making related to the matter.
Beyond the criminal investigation, the scandal is also playing out in civil court. Attorney Timothy Conlon, who represents at least three former students, named only as “John Does 1-3,” issued two civil subpoenas this week to the North Kingstown School Department and Thomas. He’s seeking a wide variety of communications, documents and computer records related to Thomas and the fat-testing program. The subpoenas are slated for discussion Friday at Washington County Superior Court.
Lima acknowledged the widespread attention North Kingstown has received because of the ongoing scandal, suggesting she now believes the school’s investigation could go beyond the previously stated goal of looking at what happened since 2018. She said that would make it “impossible to predict where it will lead.”
“Recusing myself is not an easy decision,” she said. “But this is not about me. This is about the students in NK past and present. This is about making sure that nothing like this happens again. I don’t want the fact that I have a personal involvement in the case to give anyone reason to question the outcome.”
Tim White contributed to this report