NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Jennifer Lima, a new member of the School Committee, had voted in February to fire veteran basketball coach and teacher Aaron Thomas for conducting private “body fat tests” on naked teenage male athletes.
Then, the allegations hit home.
In late October, when the accusations against Thomas became public — along with the phrase he used to coax boys into taking off their underwear, “Are you shy or not shy?”— Lima told the Globe that her oldest son revealed to her for the first time that it had happened to him, too.
“People are screaming at me, [holding] the signs ‘What if it was your kid?’ ” Lima said in an interview. “Well, it was my kid. It shouldn’t matter if it was my kid or someone else’s kid.… We need to make sure it’s no one else’s kid.”
“I’ve lived here for 29 years. This is not who our town is,” said Lima, who is the first person directly affected by the scandal to speak publicly. “We are a tight-knit community, where everybody knows somebody who knows somebody, and pulls together when there is an issue and unites for common goals.”
“My hope is we can come together over this,” she added.
The School Committee voted unanimously on Saturday to continue its external investigation to determine when information about Thomas first came to the attention of the district administration and what action was taken.
Since the news broke, Lima said, she has learned that many other parents are also finding out what happened to their children.
“There are tons of families in this town who are affected,” Lima said. “Other people said, ‘Yup, my kid too.’ ”
Lima’s son had played varsity basketball before graduating in 2008. He told her that he and several friends had submitted to the fat tests, naked and alone with Thomas.
“He was ‘not shy,’ ” Lima said of her son, who is now 31. “He’s a jock. He said in hindsight it was weird and inappropriate.”
Thomas’s lawyer, John E. MacDonald of Providence, said Wednesday afternoon that the body composition testing program was “solely designed to help student-athletes improve their performance” and that Thomas was “self-taught” in using skinfold calipers to measure body fat.
“This was a completely voluntary activity and students could enter or leave the program at will. Parental consent forms were utilized. Aaron Thomas spent countless hours collecting and inputting the composition data to assist hundreds of student athletes in reaching their goals,” MacDonald said in a statement to the Globe. “He has dedicated 32 years of his life to the North Kingstown School Department and adamantly denies any allegations of unlawful conduct.”
Lima says she believes parents had no idea the fat tests were happening. While there are always many school permission forms that parents have to sign when their children play sports, and one for body-fat analysis may not have drawn attention, “I am pretty sure I would have remembered being asked to give permission for him to be naked!” Lima told the Globe.
According to interviews with multiple former athletes, Thomas performed the “body fat tests” one-on-one with the boys, in either a small closet or the little AV room attached to his office. Boys who said they weren’t shy would be told to strip fully naked. Thomas would use skinfold calipers to pinch and explore the skin near their scrotum, their groin, and their buttocks.
Thomas used the data he collected to create spreadsheets for the male athletes that listed 27 data points measuring their bodies, including neck, chest, wrist, hand, hip, thigh, waist, ankle, calf, waist-hip flexibility, and leg span. There is no data showing measurements taken in the groin area, or any area that would be covered by underwear, according to a spreadsheet that one former athlete shared with the Globe.
On Monday, Lima decided to issue a statement as a School Committee member, trying to cut through the vitriol on social media and in the media. She didn’t talk about her son, but focused instead on what the issue had revealed and why the committee was being deliberative and cautious.
“This situation has highlighted gaps in our current laws and procedures, and I hope that collectively our town and our state can work together to fix them,” she wrote. “I hope that private schools would want to take part in these efforts as well.”
Please note that I am speaking only for myself, and not representing the school committee. I want to start by saying...Posted by Jennifer Lima for North Kingstown School Committee on Monday, November 8, 2021
“We all live here and know someone affected by this. I understand there is a desire to see quick action, but it’s never as easy as it looks,” Lima told the Globe in an interview. “As a School Committee we are bound by what we can say and what we can’t say. I just thought, what’s been missing is some type of acknowledgement that we recognize this is an awful situation, we’re all parents and we get it.”
The last week and a half has been surreal for this small town. The attention has drawn soul-searching from residents.
“This could happen anywhere, and you never think this will happen in your town. But it can,” Lima said.
Others are also coming forward about their experiences with Thomas, going back to the 1990s, saying that in addition to using skinfold calipers on their groins, he also had them do stretches in the nude, “duck walks,” and gave “hernia checks” with his bare hands. The tests were only conducted on male athletes playing football, basketball, and soccer.
“I recall having numerous conversations with fellow male student athletes at NKHS in home room, the hallways, the locker room, at practice, etc. around Coach Thomas’s practice. We were loud and spoke about it OFTEN. How did teachers and other coaches not know?” another former athlete who graduated in 2009 wrote to the Globe. “Did some know, but didn’t have the courage to speak out against the powerful Coach? Were some teachers shut down, intimidated, threatened by the Coach and the greater athletic department?”
He added that anyone defending Thomas’s actions should ask themselves: “Who benefited from the naked fat tests? Who benefited from the naked stretches and duck walks?”
A former athlete who graduated in 2001 said that he had elected to do the fat tests after Thomas and then-football coach Keith Kenyon told him he needed to lose weight.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time. We all seemed to normalize it … instead of questioning, ‘Why do I have to get naked for a fat test?’ ” the former athlete said in an interview with the Globe. “I looked up to the coaches — they were like father figures to me, giving me guidance on what I needed to do to play the position.”
Now, though, the naked fat tests make no sense, he said. “As a father now, and I coach under 6 in soccer, I would never go near this activity,” he added. “This is so beyond illegal to me.”
Kenyon, who is now principal at Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans, Mass., did not respond to a request for comment.