NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Former student-athletes at North Kingstown High School say that the body fat tests conducted by longtime basketball coach Aaron Thomas were an uncomfortable open secret that goes back more than 20 years.
Even now, they remember his question: “Are you shy, or not shy?”
That meant Thomas, 54, wanted the teenage boys to go to a small janitor’s closet or the little AV room attached to his office. There, alone with Thomas, they would have to remove their clothes and underwear so Thomas could do a “body fat test,” using skinfold calipers to pinch and explore the skin near their scrotum, their groin, and their buttocks, some of Thomas’ former players told The Boston Globe in multiple interviews over the past several months. Some said he would also ask them to do stretches or “duck walks” while naked. One alleged that Thomas did a “hernia check.”
Thomas resigned from North Kingstown High in June, and started working as a social studies teacher at the Monsignor Clarke School in South Kingstown in the fall. On Friday, Monsignor Clarke emailed parents to say that Thomas had been placed on paid administrative leave, WPRI-TV reported.
“The school received a complaint that one of our recently hired middle school teachers allegedly acted inappropriately while previously employed at a different, public school,” the email read.
Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office confirmed Friday that they are investigating the case. No criminal charges have yet been brought against Thomas, who did not respond to requests for comment from the Globe.
There was a sense that one was not allowed to say no to Thomas, said a former boys’ basketball player, who called the body fat tests “creepy and perverted.” (The Globe does not publicly identify alleged victims of possible sexual assault without their permission.)
“It was uncomfortable and very unnecessary, and most of us did it. He gave us an option, and if you didn’t do it or not it was going to be noted. If you didn’t do it, you didn’t care about the team,” said the former player, who was on the team in the early 2000s. “No other sport was doing it. ... You didn’t need to be naked in a room alone with a man.”
Michael F. Kieloch, the director of communications and public relations at the Diocese of Providence, on Saturday told the Globe that North Kingstown school officials didn’t tell Monsignor Clarke School or the Diocese about the allegations against Thomas.
Thomas had been a basketball coach at the 1,300-student public school in North Kingstown more than 20 years, where he taught social studies and video education. He and his students also would do work for the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
The principal at North Kingstown High School had given Monsignor Clarke a “positive, professional” referral for Thomas, Kieloch said. “His background checks were clear, his references were positive, we had no knowledge there was any allegations [against] Mr. Thomas at all before hiring him,” he said.
Kieloch said the school found out about the allegations when WPRI-TV called them about the investigation on Thursday. The Diocese immediately placed Thomas on paid leave, he said.
The school wouldn’t have hired Thomas if they had known about the allegations, Kieloch said.
But another of Thomas’ alleged victims told the Boston Globe that he and another man had contacted the Diocese and Monsignor Clarke’s administrators about Thomas several weeks ago, when they found out that Thomas had been hired to work there. He said they never heard back.
He said he was 14 in the early 2000s when Thomas tapped him on the shoulder and invited him into a private room at the school for his first body fat test. He said that Thomas asked him the same question that the older boys had warned him about: “Are you shy, or not shy?”
“At the time I’m thinking, ‘All right, everyone else is doing it,’” the man said. “I guess this is what they do.”
He said that he first spoke to North Kingstown police in 2018, deciding to come forward after seeing the similarities between Thomas’ behavior and that of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused hundreds of girls and women.
“It wasn’t just basketball players, it was all the male athletes,” the man told the Globe on Saturday. “Hundreds of them were fat tested.”
In mid-February 2021, yet another alleged victim contacted North Kingstown School Department Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri about Thomas, according to an email shared with the Globe.
“Every month for my entire time at NKHS, Thomas brought me into his office (protected by CCTV) and asked me to get naked, then touched me all over my body,” the man wrote. “He did this to dozens if not hundreds of boys over a ~10 year period to my knowledge. ... I beg you to question him about this ‘fat testing’ regime and what purpose it served.”
He wrote that he had been 13 at the time, and that the experiences had left him with psychiatric problems. “This is an open secret in my corner of NK,” the North Kingstown man added. “I assumed I was weak because so many people ‘fat tested’ and they don’t seem to struggle with it like I have.”
Mancieri responded, saying she would share the email with Superintendent Phil Auger, and asked for the names of other athletes who may also have complaints.
Around that same time in February, Thomas was focused on his basketball team, which was on its way to the playoffs. “It’s all about the relationships you build, it’s not just basketball. It’s other things too,” he said on a coaches roundtable episode of The Roudy Runback podcast on Feb. 21. “They know I put a lot of time into scouting and watching games and preparing, and they expect that my effort will be just as hard as the effort I ask them to put on the court. I think that goes a long way in coaching, that you have that kind of relationship between the coach and the players.”
Three days later, the school committee voted unanimously on the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate a tenured teacher, who was Thomas. Another coach substituted for Thomas at the basketball playoffs two days later; the local media was told that Thomas was out with an “undisclosed medical issue.” Thomas was on paid leave until he quietly left his $93,000 salaried job in June. His resignation ended the North Kingstown School Department’s investigation into his conduct, Auger said in a statement on Saturday.
The North Kingstown school department hired Matthew T. Oliverio, a North Kingstown labor and employment lawyer with experience as a municipal solicitor, to investigate claims by the former students.
North Kingstown police detectives interviewed Thomas’ former players and took statements about the fat testing program, according to former student-athletes who have been contacted by the police. (North Kingstown Police declined to comment for this article.) One of the alleged victims told the Globe that police told them there were no criminal charges.
The state Department of Education told the Globe this summer that it had no record of complaints against Thomas. So one of the victims, who had spoken to police in 2018, decided to make those complaints more public by launching the @ShyorNot? Twitter account, which he shared with the Globe.
Starting at 14 years of age, I was asked to get naked, alone with Aaron Thomas, in a closet every quarter for four straight years. I performed a series of stretches under the guise of a Body fat testing program. Many other boys were part of this “program”. It spanned decades.— ShyorNot? (@shyornotshy) June 17, 2021
He told the Globe that he wanted others to know that they weren’t alone.
“The more people that come forward, the less alone you feel, and the greater the chances of making positive change,” he said.
The man said he also wants his former hometown to face this “open secret” that has been kept by many of its boys for years.
“Something is broken, really broken in North Kingstown, and it needs to be fixed,” he said. “And it doesn’t get fixed until the community understands the process.”
Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report.