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North Kingstown School District in R.I. ‘lost control’ of star coach Aaron Thomas, new federal complaint alleges

A new complaint by five former student-athletes reveals additional accusations, including that Thomas posed one student in “sex positions” during naked tests and that the school allowed the coach “to groom students into the widespread acceptance” of “naked inspection and touching of children”

A woman holds a protest sign referencing the allegations against former North Kingstown basketball coach Aaron Thomas during a North Kingstown school committee meeting at North Kingstown High School in North Kingstown, Rhode Island on November 16, 2021.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Five former high school students who say they were subjected to naked “fat tests” by former North Kingstown High School boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas filed a complaint Monday with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, saying school officials ignored his conduct for years.

The complaint from lawyer Timothy J. Conlon alleges that North Kingstown school officials ignored Thomas’ misconduct, failed to report him to the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families, stalled in reporting him to the state Department of Education, and allowed Thomas to use his position inappropriately.

Thomas was using his private email and cell phone to contact teenage boys personally to set up one-on-one fat tests, taking conversations about “body fat testing” out of the school realm, the complaint said. When he cleaned out his office in 2021, Thomas also took documents with him, Thomas’s lawyer told the Globe in November, and a removable hard drive is still missing, the complaint said.

School officials have now acknowledged they’d been told about Thomas’s interactions with male student-athletes going back to 2017 — Conlon alleges even as early as 2016. However, the complaint said, school officials never told parents anything.

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The complaint also alleges that Thomas was supposed to move out of state after he was terminated. Instead, he took a new job a few miles away as a social studies teacher at Monsignor Clarke School, whose principal said Thomas came with a “positive professional” reference from North Kingstown. The Catholic school fired Thomas in November, soon after the allegations against him came to light.

Conlon credited the former student-athletes who came forward as adults and contacted North Kingstown school officials, Monsignor Clarke, the Diocese of Providence, and the media. Without them, none of this would have come to light, said Conlon.

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“Everybody is all upset about this, but the reason we now this exists is because (they) took matters into their own hands and made calls to make sure other educators were advised,” Conlon said by phone on Monday.

“My clients are very grateful for the attention the US Attorney’s Office has chosen to invest,” he said. “It’s vital that we not have a repeat performance that was the last quarter century, and strong action is needed to get school administrators to understand this cannot, cannot happen. It seems the school department wants to address this and root it out, but there has to be accountability.”

The complaint was accompanied by a letter to assistant U.S. attorney Kevin Hubbard, one of the lawyers conducting the civil investigation. Conlon said he expects to send a similar complaint to the state Department of Education.

Jim Martin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, confirmed that they sent a letter to North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger and have been in contact with the school district.

“Our office can confirm received a complaint, and we are conducting a civil investigation pursuant to federal civil rights law,” he told the Globe.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kevin L. Hubbard and Amy R. Romero in the civil division are working on this investigation.

WPRI-TV reported Friday that federal authorities had opened an investigation under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act. Conlon confirmed that the U.S. Department of Justice had requested documents from the North Kingstown School District.

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The town council discussed the pending investigations at its meeting Monday night. Town solicitor Matthew Callaghan Jr. said the attorney general may empanel a grand jury in its criminal investigation.

The flurry of investigations over the last few months focus on something that former students say has been an uncomfortable open secret at North Kingstown High School for about 25 years: The “fat tests” that the school’s star basketball coach conducted on male student-athletes.

There are several types of body composition tests, including ones measuring body fat, and none require nudity, physicians have told the Globe. Thomas, however, came up with his own way of conducting these tests: with a skin-fold caliper, a private room, and the same question, “Are you shy or not shy?”

The student-athletes who answered “not shy” were expected to take off their underwear and allow Thomas to pinch and measure their inner thighs and groins with skin fold calipers.

It wasn’t just basketball players. Other young men who didn’t play sports said that Thomas invited them to participate as teenagers. The complaint reveals new allegations, including one former student who said that he was made to pose in “sex positions” during these naked tests in 2019 and 2020.

Conlon alleges the school district lost control of Thomas, who used his personal email and cell phone to arrange private body fat tests and continued conducting tests after he was ordered to stop in 2018. “He obtained students’ personal, as opposed to student email addresses created private, offline chain emails, and formed group texts with dozens of students at a time,” the complaint reads.

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The students he targeted said felt they had no choice but to comply with Thomas’s requests.

“Several cite their lack of ability to ‘just say no’ or show a lack of confidence in themselves or trust for Coach Thomas given his authority and standing as their coach and teacher, a common theme running through instances in cases where people have identified a coach acting as a predator among students and team players.” the complaint said.

“For over twenty years, the Department allowed Mr. Thomas to remain in his coaching and teaching positions while he used those positions to groom students into the widespread acceptance of his practices, portraying the ‘fat tests,’ and various other practices that involved naked inspection and touching of children as necessary and useful to the athletic evaluation and performance of the young students and student athletes under his supervision, when in fact they were neither.”

Along with the missing computer hard drive, Conlon wrote, the students also wonder whether there are videos of their interactions with Thomas. Thomas was the communications teacher, and the “fat tests” were conducted in his office, which had CCTV monitors so he could see who was approaching the room.

The former students “have understandable concerns” about what may have been recorded during their examinations, the complaint said.

While an investigative report commissioned by the School Committee determined last summer that administrators, athletic directors, and coaches had been aware of Thomas’ fat tests at least since 2017, that report was only released to the public last month.

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The state Department of Education wasn’t informed until three years after the first complaint.

Conlon said that raises concerns about North Kingstown school officials following state reporting requirements.

“They are intended to capture activity in schools that is of concern, that is suspicious, or that presents a risk of harm, so that information is documented, tracked, and communicated to other supervisory persons in education, and licensing authorities,” he said in a statement Monday. “Where warranted, official disciplinary action can and should be taken, but that is impossible if the reporting system is short circuited and people rely on vague memories about such incidents rather than taking the official action such conduct calls for and reporting the activity to all appropriate authorities in a timely fashion.”

The school committee has reopened its independent investigation into Thomas. The town council has also hired retired Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl to conduct a review of the investigations.

Thomas is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police, who established a hotline for people to call with information or allegations about Thomas, at (401) 268-2169.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.