NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — An explosive investigative report released by the North Kingstown School Committee Wednesday evening shows that multiple school officials — administrators, athletic directors, and coaches — were aware for years that former North Kingstown High School Basketball Coach Aaron Thomas was conducting “fat tests” alone on male student-athletes, but didn’t stop him.
In June 2017, according to the report, former athletic director Howie Hague described coming across Thomas alone in his classroom with a male student, who was standing in front of Thomas with only his shorts on. He spoke with both Thomas and the athlete, then described what he had learned to then-principal Denise Mancieri and said, “I’ve got it under control.”
Hague said he told Thomas that testing should be done in the locker room. Several weeks later, Hague said, then-athletic director Dick Fossa told him that the issue had been addressed.
But multiple students and adults acknowledged that it continued for years afterward — and had been going on for at least 20 years. While the adults deny knowing anyone was naked, the students say the “naked fat tests” conducted by Thomas were an open secret.
If Thomas asked if a student was “Shy or not shy?” the student was expected to remove his underwear for the fat testing — though, according to the report, some were permitted to place their hands over their genitals as Thomas pinched the skin of their inner thighs with skin fold calipers. According to the report, Thomas conducted the fat tests on athletes and non-athletes, some of whom said he invited them to participate.
Thomas is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police, who have established a hotline for people to call with information or allegations about Thomas, at (401) 268-2169. Lawyer John E. MacDonald, who is representing Thomas in the criminal investigation, declined to comment on the report Wednesday.
School Committee Chairman Gregory Blasbalg announced the release of the report but did not discuss it during the committee’s meeting Wednesday evening.
“We understand the gravity of some of the report’s findings and we understand that the report is disturbing,” Blasbalg said. The committee has authorized its independent investigator, lawyer Matthew Oliverio, to continue working to determine more about what was known about Thomas’ actions. That second report isn’t expected until late January.
“We are responsible for ensuring that all the facts are uncovered and then taking action to strengthen the rules, regulations and policies that are intended to protect the health and safety of all the children entrusted to our school district,” Blasbalg added.
The 87-page report that Oliverio completed June 18, at the request of the school committee, called Thomas “a potential threat and liability” to the North Kingstown High School community. It also made plain the authority and esteem that Thomas had among other coaches and administrators — who appeared reluctant to question him or adamantly gave their support.
It also shows a lack of communication among school officials. Mancieri was still principal in 2018 when Superintendent Phil Auger told her he’d gotten a complaint from a former student about fat testing, and she was part of the meeting with Auger, Fossa, and Thomas when the coach was told to stop fat testing students alone.
Mancieri was assistant superintendent when a former student athlete emailed her in February 2021, saying that Thomas conducted fat tests on students while they were nude.
She told Oliverio that’s when she remembered the incident from 2017. She said she didn’t recall it in 2018, when Auger got the complaint, because she didn’t write it down, and her memory “gets a little vague,” according to the report.
The report includes interviews with many former students.
One, who graduated in 2001, described being recruited by Thomas for the fat tests and said the coach urged him “to strip down out of your underwear.” The student, who was not an athlete at the time, claimed that Thomas had him squeeze his buttocks, and that the coach focused on his groin and buttocks area.
“Finally, although Mr. Thomas never touched his genitals, (the student) claims that he just felt his buttocks and would sometimes touch his scrotum while he was doing the pinch testing,” the report says.
Another told the investigator: “He would ask me for a fat test while I was in his class. I would follow him down the hallway into his office and he would shut the door. Once I was in his office, it was understood that I would first take my clothes off. He would typically sit at his desk. There was monitor on his desk with a couple CCTVs on it. He would be watching it for people outside of his office. He would get to my underwear and without failure he would say are you shy or not shy, and I always took my underwear off.”
The same student also reported another incident before a game during his junior year.
“We were the only ones in the hallway. He suggested we do fat testing in the referee’s locker room. At that point it was common for him to move my genitals out of the way so he could pinch my leg for a BMI,” the student said. “However, in the referee’s locker room, while I was sitting and stretching my groin, he had me lift my genitals up and he then poked around my genitals with his fingers, including below them; between the scrotum and my anus. I asked him what that one was for; he told me that he was checking for hernias.”
Thomas, who had been a teacher at North Kingstown High School since 1990 and the longtime basketball coach, was placed on administrative leave in February when Mancieri received the emailed complaint.
However, the report noted, Thomas was allowed to clean out his office and take home materials without any supervision. He was the audio visual and communications teacher, and the report noted that his office and classroom were filled with volumes of electronic data, statistics, videotape recordings of many vintages, recruiting and scouting tapes.
Thomas told the North Kingstown police that he didn’t know if he had any consent forms, “claiming much of his paperwork was lost over the years as a result of A/C induced flooding in his office,” according to the report. However, his lawyer told the Globe last month that Thomas had taken home about 300 consent forms, which were signed by parents and students but did not describe how tests were conducted or that the students could be nude.
When he told Thomas about the allegations against him in February, Auger told Oliverio that Thomas “insisted on knowing the identity of the person who complained and thought the issue had been resolved in 2018,” the report said.
Auger said that Thomas also asked, “When am I coming back because I’ve got a basketball game that I have to coach.”
Auger said that was the last time he heard from Thomas, the report said. After he resigned in June, Thomas was quickly hired by the Monsignor Clarke school in South Kingstown. The Catholic middle school fired Thomas in early November, soon after the allegations against him became public.
Thomas’ peers said the allegations against him seemed out of character for someone they saw as affable and a stickler for details — even though some of the coaches said that there was no need to fat test anyone in the nude or below the waist.
Coach Kevin Gormley, whose son went through the fat tests, said that he never saw Thomas “actively recruiting” anyone to be fat tested, a comment that the investigator wrote that he found strange and “rehearsed.”
Gormley said Thomas was doing “an amazing job” and hoped that he comes back because he is incredible at what he does. “He described [Thomas] as the best basketball coach in the state and claims that he runs the most diverse and popular communications program at any high school within the state. He claims it to be a unique program.”
Gormley told the investigator “how all coaches must make tough decisions and there are always discussions among and between them about disgruntled players who are either cut from the team or whose playing time has been diminished,” but added that he “does not have any recollection as to any family who may have cause to target Mr. Thomas.”
Timothy Conlon, the lawyer for three former student-athletes, released a sworn statement by a student who said he told Auger in 2018 that he and other students were subjected to naked fat tests. Conlon also released copies from emails from Thomas to students scheduling fat tests; the emails came from Thomas’ private account.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Conlon commended the school committee’s decision to release the report to the public. “It can’t have been an easy decision, and there’s a lot in there that people aren’t going to be happy about, but trying to hide isn’t in anyone’s best interest in moving forward,” Conlon said.
In the report, the interviews with former student-athletes and former and current school officials led Oliverio to conclude that Thomas’ body fat testing and Body Mass Index testing violated school district policies against sexual harassment. Those policies prohibit “unwanted physical contact of any kind” including “grabbing, groping, squeezing, fondling, brushing against another’s body,” among other things.
“I find, with reservation, that by the greater weight of the evidence and information gathered, it is more probable than not that for a sustained period of time during the course of his employment with the School District, Mr. Thomas may have violated the aforementioned School District policies [against sexual harassment] when he conducted either or both “BFI” or “BMI” testing on numerous student/athletes of the high school while they were alone in his office, without any other adult supervision and while the student/athletes were in a state of undress, in some instances fully unclothed,” he wrote. “The reason I qualify my finding “with reservation” is because I did not have the benefit of meeting and speaking directly with the primary complainant and respondent (Aaron Thomas). This is both unusual and disappointing.”
Oliverio found that the former students were credible and their accounts consistent – even those who said they were not bothered by the naked fat tests. But he noted that Thomas’ responses were troubling and “not entirely truthful or forthcoming” and that Thomas put the students in a position where he could subtly manipulate them into taking off their underwear.
Both Hague and the current athletic director, Chris Cobain, were surprised to learn that Thomas routinely conducted “pinch tests” in the groin area and said there was no benefit to doing so — nor have they ever conducted such a test.
“Both individuals expressed deep respect for Mr. Thomas and alarm that he would engage in such conduct,” the report said. “It simply is inconsistent with the character of the man they know.”
And yet, Thomas told the North Kingstown police that the students were never naked. He claimed to have a comprehensive testing program that required consent.
Oliverio wrote that he wished he could have asked several questions:
Why did Thomas felt the need to conduct a pinch test in the groin area? Since there was little use for such data, was there another explanation?
After Hague reported Thomas for being alone with a half-dressed male student in a classroom, “why did that circumstance not resonate with Mr. Thomas? Was it simply a complete lack of awareness or poor judgment on his part?”
Thomas denied the students were naked when Auger confronted him in 2018. He wanted to ask Thomas why, and why he also denied any inappropriate conduct or appearance of inappropriate conduct when asked during his interview by the police.
“Was Mr. Thomas engaged in conduct, inappropriate or not, that he was attempting to conceal to save him embarrassment?” Oliverio asked in his report. “Or was it something more sinister than that?”