NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Addressing the public directly for the first time since revelations that high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas conducted naked “fat tests” on athletes, the embattled superintendent of schools on Tuesday defended his actions as questions continued to swirl about who knew what, when.
Phil Auger said at a North Kingstown school committee meeting that he was informed twice about Thomas’ body fat tests, once in 2018 and again in 2021. In the case in 2018, the former student said he was not naked at the time, but felt the tests were unusual, Auger said.
In 2021, a different former student did say he was naked, and that Thomas touched him inappropriately, Auger said. School officials contacted police, Auger said, and suspended Thomas. Thomas was placed on leave in February 2021. The school board voted unanimously in February to terminate him and hired an outside investigator to look into allegations. Thomas quietly resigned in June, technically before he could be fired.
“In both of these instances, I recognized the seriousness of the matter, and I acted appropriately and immediately in the best interest of students, past and present, with the information I had at the time,” Auger said at the meeting, held at the North Kingstown High School auditorium.
Auger’s comments drew a loud rebuke from some in the crowd — “Liar!” one person yelled — and a more subtle one from a lawyer representing former student-athletes.
“I fully intend to see to it that people I’ve spoken with that have significantly different versions of events make that information available to the school committee and the public at large,” Timothy Conlon, a Providence-based lawyer who lives in North Kingstown, told the Globe in an interview after the meeting.
Conlon, who’s also a divorce attorney, is best known in the media for his role in representing victims of abuse by priests, which he continues to do now in the ongoing litigation against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. Conlon said in addition to talking to the school’s own investigator, anyone with information about the allegations against Thomas can also contact him.
Auger did not address another area of criticism about school’s response to the alleged naked fat testing: Why didn’t the school leadership, including Auger and the elected school committee, tell the public what they’d learned in February 2021? After his resignation from North Kingstown High School in June, Thomas was quickly hired by a Catholic elementary and middle school, Monsignor Clarke School in South Kingstown, which fired him earlier this month. The Diocese of Providence said the North Kingstown district never alerted them to concerns about Thomas.
Defenders of the school district’s leadership have cited privacy laws and HR policies for this silence. For critics, that doesn’t cut it. If there was any time to get in a little trouble, one speaker Tuesday night said, this was it: They needed to protect kids.
“Privacy laws, give me a break,” said Tiffany Macleod, a 2009 graduate of North Kingstown High School.
Said Christopher Zangari: “The superintendent has been neglecting his duties.” As residents and taxpayers of North Kingstown, he added, “we’re all going to pay for it.”
The state attorney general is investigating. Thomas hasn’t been charged with a crime, and his lawyer, John MacDonald, said he didn’t do anything illegal. MacDonald said Thomas had consent forms signed by students and their parents — although they did not mention nudity. In a previous interview, MacDonald told the Globe that Thomas found it easier to test the boys when they were nude.
“The testing started on the upper body with the shirt off, and go lower with underwear on or off,” MacDonald told the Globe on Nov. 2. “It was simply quicker to do with underwear not in the way. In any given day, he’s testing three or four students.”
Former athletes have told The Boston Globe that Thomas would ask them, “Are you shy, or not shy?” Some said he would take them to a small janitor’s closet or an AV room attached to his office, and, if they replied “not shy,” Thomas would have them remove his underwear and use skinfold calipers to pinch and explore the skin near their scrotum, their groin, and their buttocks. Some said he would also ask them to do stretches or “duck walks” while naked. One alleged that Thomas did a “hernia check.”
Auger said the person who told him about the tests in 2018 was a student from 2006 to 2008, someone he knew separately from his work in the district. That former student said he’d felt uncomfortable about the fat testing because he was alone with Thomas and far from the locker room, but “did not allege any inappropriate contact,” Auger said. He was in a towel or gym shorts for the test at the time, Auger said.
Auger said he set up a meeting with Thomas and others, including a union rep, after hearing from this former student. Thomas acknowledged he’d been doing these tests for years, but “stated unequivocally that no one had ever been naked in front of him” during one of these tests, Auger said. He responded by telling Thomas never to meet with a student alone in his office, and to do any testing using a more modern machine, with two adults present, in the locker room, without students being naked.
The person who came forward in February 2021 was a 2006 graduate, Auger said. Auger said in addition to suspending Thomas, he contacted the school committee, their attorney and police. If he had known in 2018 what he knew in 2021 — a student alleged he was naked in front of Thomas and that Thomas touched him inappropriately in one of these meetings — he’d have suspended Thomas and fired him right away, Auger said.
Thomas had allegedly been conducting the fat tests since the 1990s.
The meeting on Tuesday was the first time the school committee had faced the public in an open setting since the allegations emerged. The meeting laid bare the divisions in this typically quiet Rhode Island town, which has also been grappling this year with criticism over the curriculum and, relatedly, a failed recall election of one of the committee members. Some North Kingstown parents say the books their children are reading are anti-American, pornographic, or racially divisive. As speakers took their allotted three minutes or ran right over it, anti-mask tirades and denunciations of Critical Race Theory mixed with denunciations of school committee members over the Thomas situation.
Even those who were sympathetic to the school committee, who felt they were being subject to an unfair campaign of harassment, acknowledged the gravity of the Thomas situation.
“It’s terrible,” Julie Grendon, a North Kingstown resident and parent of students in the district, told the Globe.
“It’s disgusting,” said her mom, Terri Browne, sitting nearby with a “THANKS NKSC” sign.
Before the meeting, some in the crowd said they thought the criticism was coming from right-wing agitators. One man unfurled a “straight pride” flag, and someone signed up to speak under the name “Brandon Lesko.” When the committee chair read it aloud, the crowd responded with laughter and the anti-President Joe Biden chant, “Let’s go Brandon!”
But it was clear the allegations against Thomas had profoundly shaken this community, especially the students who normally populate the busy corridors of North Kingstown High School.
“I am so heartbroken,” said student Izzy Montini when she got up to address the committee. “I think we’re all confused as to who knew what, when.”