NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island education officials are being asked to address the ongoing saga surrounding the former North Kingstown High School boys basketball coach, Aaron Thomas, who’s been accused of getting several former student athletes to strip naked for so-called “fat tests.”
Tim Conlon, an attorney representing multiple former North Kingstown student athletes, filed the complaint this week with the R.I. Department of Education, alleging the school district and its administrators “should be held accountable for an utter lack of control over Thomas.”
“The fact that this conduct would go on and unreported for years by other educators working within the school department cries out for action by RIDE,” Conlon wrote in the letter dated Feb. 24.
“Control is supposed to begin at the top, whereas Thomas was given free rein within the school,” he added.
Conlon has accused the North Kingstown school system of failing to respond appropriately to early signs that Thomas was inappropriately interacting with underage students. Several former students have accused Thomas — who coached and taught at the high school for nearly three decades — of bringing them into his office or a small closet, asking them to strip completely naked and then conducting a series of tests, including using calipers to measure their body fat. The students said he would use the device on the upper thigh near their genitalia.
Several athletic training professionals have since told Target 12 there is no reason for people to be naked for body-fat testing. Thomas denied that any of the students were naked for the tests when confronted with allegations in 2018, according to a statement from North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger. He was allowed to stay on as a teacher and coach, and helped the town win its first-ever state championship in 2019.
“There is no lack of evidence that the ‘testing’ was going on at least since the ’90s,” Conlon wrote in his complaint to the state. “Therefore, accepting as credible Thomas’ explanation for having hundreds of students remove their clothes raises at least two obvious questions: which administrators authorized an untrained employee to do this, and what precisely did they think he was doing?”
Conlon is calling on state officials to take action against North Kingstown “to assure Rhode Islanders that we will never see such a breakdown again.” Specifically, he cites a state law that authorizes Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to withhold education funding from any municipality that violates or neglects the law.
A spokesperson for the Education Department declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation.
“To the extent that legal or regulatory changes are needed – now is the time to seek those changes,” Conlon wrote. “As disturbing as it may be to see that these events occurred, it would be far more disturbing to find that we failed to more effectively prevent such events from occurring in the future.”
Conlon’s complaint is the latest in a flurry of legal proceedings and investigations surrounding the fat-test allegations. R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and local police have launched a criminal probe into whether any laws were broken.
Separately, the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office has initiated a federal investigation into whether the school department and its employees failed to respond to prior signs of potential inappropriate behavior. The North Kingstown School Department has hired an outside lawyer to investigate the allegations internally, and the Town Council has tapped a former judge to review the events up to now.
Thomas — who was fired from a teaching job at a different school after Target 12 first reported the allegations against him last October — has not been criminally charged with any offenses. He’s denied through attorneys any wrongdoing.
“I believe at the end of it all, it will be determined that there was no untoward conduct on his part towards anybody,” Tim Dodd, an attorney representing Thomas in a civil case, said following a Thursday hearing at Washington County Superior Court.
In his complaint to the Education Department, Conlon accused Thomas of removing confidential educational documents from the school when he resigned ahead of a planned termination last year. Conlon explained he’d also been advised that a review of the North Kingstown School Department electronic records suggests “a removable hard drive is missing from Thomas’ previous office.”
In addition to coaching basketball, Thomas taught communications, and his office was filled with audio and video recording equipment. Several former students, who were repeatedly fat tested in Thomas’s office, told Target 12 they suspected the sessions were being recorded, although none said they ever saw or heard any recordings afterward.
“Thomas kept detailed records regarding his subjects’ physique gathered during the examinations which were purported to be in furtherance of their participation in student athletics in North Kingstown,” Conlon wrote. “Although I have requested these records from the School Department, I was advised that they are simply not there.”
Conlon also noted that Thomas established private “off-line” communication channels with students — both through private emails and text messages — he said were used to facilitate fat testing scheduling. The appointments happened around games and team practices, but also “between and even during classes,” according to Conlon.
“As I am sure you are aware, a breakdown in appropriate boundaries between students and teachers can be dangerous,” Conlon wrote. “Administrators have the duty to protect the welfare of students attending public schools. Allowing this teacher to create private ‘off the record’ channels of communication under the guise of ‘testing’ further eroded the protections administrative recordkeeping are in place to protect.”