NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The director of the Center for Nutrition at Boston Children’s Hospital said that the naked body-fat tests that former North Kingstown High School basketball coach Aaron Thomas performed on teenage boys were “overly invasive and inappropriate.”
Dr. Christopher Duggan, a pediatric gastroenterologist and nutrition physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, told the Globe that there’s no reason for people to be unclothed during these types of tests.
As a former assistant football coach and a longtime basketball coach, Thomas had used skin-fold calipers to check their body fat and also measured various areas of the boys’ bodies. Multiple former student-athletes told the Globe that Thomas would ask them the same question — “Are you shy or not shy?” Those who replied “not shy” were then told to remove their underwear for the “fat tests.”
Thomas’s lawyer, John E. MacDonald, told the Globe that the longtime coach was “self-taught” on conducting body fat tests and found it easier to examine the teenage boys when they were nude.
Duggan, however, said that the skin-fold calipers are meant to be used on the biceps and triceps, in the subscapular region, and the suprailiac site above the hipbone — none of which would require a person to be naked. And, he added, there are other ways to measure body fat. Simply measuring a person’s weight, height, and waist circumference would be more accurate than using skin-fold calipers, he said.
“Is there any validity with having people take all their clothes off so you can measure skinfold and thigh circumference? No. I think that’s the key issue here,” Duggan said.
Thomas, 54, is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office after former athletes going back to the mid-1990s complained that he had performed “body fat” tests on them while they were naked and alone with him, in either a closet or a small room attached to his office. Some said that he used skin-fold calipers to explore their groin and buttocks, and had them do stretches and “duck walks” while nude. One told the Globe that Thomas used his bare hands to perform a “hernia check.”
MacDonald told the Globe that Thomas had parents and teens sign “weight testing agreements” allowing the coach to perform body-composition tests. However, the consent forms don’t detail how the tests would be performed or that the student-athletes would be asked to be fully nude.
Thomas resigned from North Kingstown High School in June, and was quickly hired by Monsignor Clarke School nearby (the Catholic school fired him in early November, soon after the most-recent allegations surfaced). When Thomas cleaned out his office at NKHS, he took with him 300 or more consent forms going back to 2005, MacDonald said. The lawyer said that he has since returned the forms at the request of the North Kingstown school district’s lawyer.
Timothy Conlon, a lawyer who is representing some of the former student-athletes, filed a writ of replevin against Thomas last week. Conlon is alleging that the consent forms are considered educational records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and should not have been removed from the school.
The complaint is scheduled for a hearing on Dec. 3 before Judge Sarah Taft-Carter in Washington County Superior Court.
The Town Council will discuss on Nov. 29 whether to appoint outside counsel to also analyze the ongoing school investigation.
“I implore each and every one of you to come forward and admit what you know. If you were wrong, own up to it. You might be able to salvage some of your dignity and maybe garner a bit of respect back from the victims and residents in town,” North Kingstown resident Megan Reilly said during Monday’s Town Council meeting.
While most residents have offered support for the young men who’ve come forward, a few have questioned why the former student-athletes had gone along with the fat tests.
“Why would a student choose this? It is a student’s responsibility to choose or not choose to be clothed,” North Kingstown resident Virginia Sanders, whose children graduated from the high school, said at the Nov. 16 School Committee meeting. She was largely booed.
Rachel Lovell, assistant professor of criminology at Cleveland State University who studies victimology, said it’s important to understand the types of vulnerabilities that are being exploited in incidents like these.
“Having unchecked power and access to other kids in that environment — that’s what [predators] look for,” Lovell said. “You see it a lot in the Larry Nassar case. There were reports and mumblings of people talking about it, saying it’s strange, a whisper network of athletes and a deep down awareness that something wasn’t right. And some made formal reports.”
One of the former student-athletes who reported Thomas to the North Kingstown police in 2018 told the Globe that he’d been motivated after hearing about the Nassar case. (Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, molested hundreds of girls and women over decades.)
Others said that the naked fat-tests were an open secret at North Kingstown High School.
When there are suspicions about something wrong, people shouldn’t automatically dismiss them, Lovell said. Officials should encourage an environment of reporting and follow-up, she said.
Otherwise, Lovell said, survivors feel victimized by the institutions that are supposed to protect them. It can be harder for boys to speak up.
“I think in general boys aren’t believed — ‘What do you mean you think that’s sexual?’” she said. “There’s the ‘institutional betrayal’ — the callous interactions with cops who don’t care, or teachers, but beyond that, it’s where the institution makes rules and policies that specifically help themselves.”
Lovell added: “The police and the school are there to protect you, so when an institution betrays survivors, that betrayal can hinder victims’ ability to heal and it contributes to issues of PTSD, anxiety, [and makes them] less likely to participate in prosecutions.”