NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — A new internal investigation into the naked “fat test” scandal plaguing the North Kingstown public school system found top administrators “turned a blind eye” to the inappropriate behavior of former high school boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas.
The criticism was outlined in a report released Monday, the second phase of a North Kingstown School Committee investigation into the matter. The report examined what other adults knew about the allegations against Thomas, who’s been accused of getting scores of former underage students to strip naked alone with him behind closed doors since at least the mid-1990s.
Once naked, the students said the coach would measure their body fat, touch their upper inner thighs and make them do various stretches and exercises.
In one previously undisclosed allegation contained in the report, a student who said he was naked fat tested between 2017 and 2019 indicated the interactions became sexual.
“Among other things, those tests included getting into various positions naked and during the course of some of them, Thomas was pressing on the inside of my groin with his thumbs,” the former student said in a statement. “The nature of the examinations and contact was such that on multiple occasions, I became erect. On at least one of those occasions, I noted Thomas to become visibly aroused.”
Matthew Oliverio, an outside attorney who led the investigation, highlighted that multiple students reported being fat tested while naked in the years after 2018, when former Superintendent Phil Auger and other top administrators had confronted Thomas about his behavior. At the time, Thomas assured the other adults that there was nothing inappropriate about his conduct and that the students were never naked.
“From an objective perspective the Superintendent had a duty to investigate the circumstances beyond taking the word of Mr. Thomas,” Oliverio wrote in the 258-page report.
“Instead, he accepted Mr. Thomas’ word that no student was ever naked or inappropriately touched, because he trusted Mr. Thomas to tell the truth given his long storied and unblemished career and reputation within the school community,” Oliverio continued. “In other words, he turned a blind eye.”
Following the 2018 confrontation — which happened after a former student told Auger about the fat tests — Thomas stayed on as a communications teacher and boys basketball coach, helping the high school win its first-ever state championship in 2019. Two years later, he was suspended after another student came forward with similar allegations.
Auger, who led the district for the past 11 years as superintendent, resigned effective immediately last week ahead of the release of Oliverio’s report. He said it was because the district needed to move ahead with a new leader without ties to Thomas.
“Our school community is working through its investigation around allegations involving Mr. Thomas at NKHS, and I respect the importance to move forward with a new district leader who is in no way connected to these matters,” Auger wrote in a letter to the North Kingstown school community that education leaders said came as a surprise.
The School Committee unanimously voted in favor of Michael Waterman becoming the interim superintendent. Waterman said he was hopeful the district could heal, underscoring that he wouldn’t be taking the job permanently.
The allegations against Thomas have sparked a criminal investigation by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha. Thomas has not been charged criminally and he has denied through lawyers any wrongdoing.
Separately, Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha’s office has launched a federal civil rights investigation into the North Kingstown school district, and the Town Council has hired a retired judge to review the various efforts. A private attorney representing multiple former students — Tim Conlon — is also pursuing a civil case in R.I. Superior Court.
In his report, Oliverio confirmed there has been some crossover between his investigation and Neronha’s. He said he was denied the opportunity to interview the former student who said he witnessed Thomas become aroused because the attorney general “did not want multiple accounts of interviews of potentially key witnesses.”
Oliverio interviewed nine school officials as part of Phase 2 of his investigation, which comes out more than eight months after Phase 1 was completed last June around the same time Thomas quietly resigned from North Kingstown schools. The report did not become public until months later, after Target 12 first reported about the allegations against Thomas and subsequently filed a public records request that resulted in the release of the internal probe.
For the most part, the school officials interviewed by Oliverio admitted to having at least some knowledge of the fat tests over the years, saying it started under the leadership of former athletic director Keith Kenyon, who set up a data company called Athletic IQ testing in the early 2000s. (Kenyon, who now works in a school system on Cape Cod, did not respond to multiple attempts by Oliverio to be interviewed as part of the investigation.)
But the school officials who did talk adamantly denied ever knowing that the students were naked for the testing, arguing that would have pushed them to report Thomas’s behavior. All Rhode Islanders 18 years and older are legally obligated to report any abuse or suspected abuse of children to the state’s child welfare agency.
North Kingstown police did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night about whether Oliverio’s latest report revealed any violations of that law.
Joseph Gilmartin, a longtime teacher and football coach, said he and others in the athletic community knew about the testing, but that he spoke with several coaches after Thomas was suspended last year and “they all professed to be stunned.” Kevin Gormley, who helped Thomas coach basketball, distanced himself from his former colleague, saying he would have reported the naked fat testing if he’d known because “testing kids while naked is a hundred percent inappropriate.”
Gormley and others — including strength and conditioning coach Jay Shabo — also expressed frustration with the investigation and having to be interviewed. Shabo suggested that his reputation and those of his colleagues were being “sullied and unfairly maligned,” according to the report.
“Do you think if I had any inkling that Aaron Thomas was meeting with students alone in a state of undress that I wouldn’t have reported that immediately to the superintendent? Of course I would have,” he told Oliverio.
But others, including high school history teacher Dave Avedisian, said they felt like the district had shown inconsistencies when dealing with issues involving sexual harassment. He suggested Thomas was shown leniency where others were not because the former coach was well liked and respected.
“According to Mr. Avedisian, if you are well respected, and specifically possess the stature of someone like Mr. Thomas, you may receive preferential treatment or be given the benefit of the doubt,” Oliverio wrote.
But the report came down hardest on Auger, along with assistant superintendent Denise Mancieri and former athletic director Howie Hague, who later became a teacher.
In 2017, Hague walked by Thomas’s office and saw him closing the door with a student without a shirt on “while in the process of being fat tested,” according to the report. The incident was reported to Mancieri, who expressed concern that the testing was happening in an office rather than the gym. The reaction evoked sharp criticism from Olvierio.
“She was rightly troubled by the encounter with a student, but remarkably for the wrong reason,” he wrote. “She never considered that the student was at risk for any harm.”
He also slammed Hague for not taking any further action beyond reporting the issue to his superior, suggesting Hague believed his obligation was done after he alerted Mancieri and incoming athletic director Dick Fossa, who has since died.
“Given his supervisory authority he decided to turn a blind eye to the situation,” Oliverio wrote about Hague.
“There is no evidence that Mr. Hague ever confronted Mr. Thomas about the situation to inquire and to ask the tough question, such as ‘Aaron what in the world are you doing and thinking?'” he added.
Oliverio did not make any recommendations about what school officials should do about the administrators “relative to the failure to report, investigate or oversee the activities of Aaron Thomas.” But he called on the School Committee to continue training staff and students around reporting inappropriate behavior.
He also suggested the district analyze its policies and training techniques, adopt a resolution encouraging the Rhode Island Interscholastic League to issue guidelines around safe testing protocols, and urged the R.I. Department of Education to offer yearly training sessions on identifying and reporting child abuse in schools.
He also encouraged more thoughtful communication between administrators and teachers.
“Some of this training should include a candid discussion with parents and their student athletes about the power dynamics and influence that a coach may internationally or unwittingly exert over students at the start of each athletic season of the year, and what tools are available to report without fear of retaliation or retribution,” he wrote.
Oliverio’s recommendation seemingly stemmed from at least one comment made to him by the mother of a former student basketball player who said her son confessed to her that he’d been naked fat tested in recent years. The former student suggested he and his peers went along with it because they didn’t want to lose out on any opportunities to play on the court.
“He said, ‘we just did what he wanted,’ and she surmised from that statement that since he was the starting point guard, if he wanted to play, you submit to the test,” according to the report.
Kim Kalunian and Amanda Pitts contributed to this report.