PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Experts say the growing number of educators in Southern New England under investigation for inappropriate interactions with students should be a wake-up call to administrators and school committees.
After Target 12’s Nov. 1 report on former North Kingstown high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas — who dozens of former student-athletes accused of making them strip naked behind closed doors for so-called “fat tests” — an East Greenwich public schools student and her mother filed a Title IX complaint three days later.
The complaint alleged an assistant coach in the district had sexually harassed her for multiple years.
“Thomas is not the one who destroyed the system,” said Timothy Conlon, an attorney representing several of the alleged victims in the Thomas case. “Thomas may have revealed the problems and flaws within the system, but the persons who enabled that to go on for two decades — those are the people I’m seeking to hold accountable.”
Thomas has not been criminally charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
Conlon said while the public has only recently become aware of the problem, this is nothing new for school administrators.
“From my point of view, administrators have been on notice about this for well over a decade,” he said. “I have cases involving inappropriate texts with students going back 10 years.”
In North Kingstown, four school educators have resigned or been placed on leave. Thomas is accused of communicating with student-athletes on their personal emails to schedule fat tests.
Within months of the Thomas allegations becoming public, the superintendent and assistant superintendent resigned. In a separate case, a teacher in the district has been accused of stalking a middle school student.
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In East Greenwich, the sexual harassment allegations led to two coaches being fired, with one coach being accused of using social media to target an entire JV team.
West Warwick public schools placed a pre-K teacher’s assistant on leave after allegations of inappropriate behavior. In a letter to parents, the superintendent called the allegations “disturbing.”
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In Massachusetts, a Westport school staff member is on leave pending an investigation into alleged misconduct. The district has not released any details about the allegations.
Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said North Kingstown’s school administration failed to respond to concerns about Thomas.
“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening elsewhere,” Duffy said. “It could be a large situation statewide.”
Duffy said school leaders have to take allegations more seriously.
“There can be no ifs, ands or buts — if there’s a report, they have to act on it,” he said.
But Duffy also pointed to the 2020 Education Accountability Act, a law which shifted some responsibilities for school discipline and appointing school personnel from school committees to superintendents and principals.
He said as more allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced over the past few months, school committees have considered strengthening accountability systems.
“We may need to strengthen the administrative core to be able to address all those issues,” Duffy added.
At the State House, some lawmakers are looking into closing a legal loophole that prevents some schools from knowing when an educator is accused of inappropriate behavior.
In the Thomas case, Target 12 uncovered that private schools don’t have access to a R.I. Department of Education database that tracks when a teacher accused of misconduct is flagged.
State Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung wants to change that.
She supports a bill that would give private schools access to the RIDE database, and she introduced a bill that requires the department to maintain a list of coaches who were terminated for cause. Right now, only teachers are tracked.
“In North Kingstown and East Greenwich, what we’re seeing are teachers and coaches who may have fallen through the cracks,” said Fenton-Fung, R-Cranston. “And we’re trying to find ways to stop that.”
While Duffy told Target 12 he didn’t think schools were allowing educators to jump around too easily, Fenton-Fung said the current system was too forgiving for educators with concerning backgrounds.
“I would say this: nothing was an issue till it was uncovered and until these brave kids started to come forward,” she said. “USA Gymnastics didn’t think they had a problem either — ‘oh, it’s just one or two coaches.’ And all of a sudden there are hundreds that have come forward.”