NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — There’s no debate about what happened for more than 25 years at North Kingstown High School.
Whether it happened in a narrow equipment closet off the locker room in the old high school, or a small windowless office with CCTV video screens in the new high school, the celebrated boys basketball coach, Aaron Thomas, was asking male student athletes to strip naked, alone in a room with him, so he could conduct “fat tests” on their teenage bodies.
He’d give them an out, one that few of the students felt they could actually take: He’d ask them, “Are you shy or not shy?” victims told the Globe. If they answered “shy,” they were allowed to keep their underwear on. Most, however, felt pressured to say they were not shy. And most, former student-athletes say now, still wonder why no one stopped him.
“I don’t buy for a second the coaches didn’t know,” said one former student-athlete, who said he was fat tested at 14 years old during the early 2000s. “There were coaches in the locker room, on buses, at tryouts. I don’t believe none of them heard of fat tests. It was open — it was around the school my four years.”
Another former-athlete, who also went through the fat tests starting when he was about 14, in the 1990s, said he didn’t tell his parents that Thomas had him undress in the equipment closet. Not all athletes were subjected to fat testing. If those that were didn’t tell, how would coaches or other adults know about it?
“People knew that tests were happening, but I don’t think administrators or coaches really knew the extent of what was happening,” the man said. Two of his friends who were athletes but who were never fat tested were in shock when the news broke in October 2021, he said. “There’s a big difference between knowing kids were doing fat tests and knowing the kids were naked.”
The Globe Rhode Island contacted multiple former administrators, teachers, and sports officials who supervised or worked alongside Thomas at North Kingstown High School over the last 30 years. Some are still working at the high school or Davisville Middle School, others have moved on to other school districts or retired.
Portsmouth School Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy, who was principal of North Kingstown High School from 2011 until the fall of 2015, said the allegations against Thomas were “deeply disturbing.”
“I have and will continue to fully cooperate with any investigation into this matter,” Kenworthy said in an email to the Globe. “It would not be appropriate for me to make any further comments at this time.”
Retired principal Gerald Foley, who led NKHS from 1992 to 2010 and automatically recited their motto, “Seize the day, we are NK,” said he hadn’t known about the fat tests, much less that students were alone with Thomas for the tests.
“That would certainly raise red flags for me if I heard that was going on,” Foley told the Globe.
Thomas had been at the high school for two years as a social studies teacher and was an assistant football coach when Foley became principal. The new high school, built around 2000, included a media center where Thomas took over video communications classes and became its director, Foley recalled. Thomas also started coaching boys basketball in the mid-1990s and eventually became the head varsity coach, leading the team to championships.
“When I first heard about this [fat testing], I was taken aback that this was happening,” Foley said. “I thought he was doing a good job with kids and his programs.”
Foley said longtime athletic director, Keith Kenyon, was in charge of all sports and activities at the high school, and was responsible for managing Thomas and the other coaches. Kenyon was “hands-on” with his coaches and the sports programs, Foley said.
“During my tenure, I never heard anything from Keith about Aaron Thomas and his athletic programs,” Foley said, adding, “but, you don’t know exactly what’s going on in your schools.”
Close ties between director and coach
Kenyon became the high school’s athletic director and football coach in 1985, earning accolades for his work building the school’s athletic programs by the time Thomas was hired in 1990. Thomas quickly became involved in the sports programs, first working under Kenyon as an assistant football coach, then coaching the boys junior varsity and varsity basketball teams.
Kenyon, who was an usher at Thomas’ wedding to then-English teacher Cheryl DeCotis in 1997, was also instrumental in making Thomas the first summer sports camp director for the district in 2001. Thomas was the sole applicant for the new position; he told a Providence Journal reporter at the time that he and Kenyon had written the job description.
Around 2005, Kenyon became involved with Athletic IQ, a company started by former NFL scout Randy Tyson that used an electronic standardized testing system for high school athletes intended to help them reach for college scholarships. When the company did a trial run at North Kingstown High School in October 2005, Thomas and another coach, Mike Rogers, were assigned to operate the testing station for students height, weight, and body fat.
Kenyon took leave from the high school in 2006 to work as vice president for Athletic IQ — Thomas was the athletic director in his absence — then returned to the school a year later. He resigned in August 2009, as the school administration received preliminary results of an audit into alleged spending abuses.
Kenyon is now principal of Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans. A recent call from a Globe reporter to Kenyon’s office was returned by Boston attorney Andrea Kramer, who in a phone call with the Globe identified herself as his lawyer. She had no comment. Kenyon then emailed that he was also not available for comment. He did not respond to a follow-up email.
Former North Kingstown Superintendent James Halley, who led the school department from 1996 to 2008, the longest of any superintendents during Thomas’ tenure, did not respond to messages from the Globe to his home or the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, where he is president.
There was relatively little turnover in the school administration and coaching staff during Thomas’ tenure. And, like Halley, few responded to the Globe’s requests for comment.
An invitation to be tested
The former student-athlete who said he believes the coaches knew about Thomas’ and his fat tests remembered how he was recruited into the testing during the summer basketball camp before his freshman year in the early 2000s. (The Globe does not publicly identify alleged victims of possible sexual assault without their permission.)
Thomas met with him and other boys in the library and introduced himself as the varsity basketball coach, the former athlete said. “He said if you’re interested in [training], write down your name and email,” the man said. “He laid out who he is, what he does, that he likes to essentially start training kids early for basketball purposes, and also offers coaching for body fat, height, length … basically to see where you’ll be at four years for now.”
Even though Thomas wasn’t the coach for the freshmen team, he followed up with the fat testing, the former athlete said. “It would be private, just me and him. He would do length, height, start to do body fat, and he would kneel down [measuring] my quad and saying are you comfortable, are you shy, do you feel OK, if you aren’t shy, you can take down your boxers,” the man said. “I had to move my privates out of the way because he was so freaking close.”
He and his friends joked about it at the time and how it made them uncomfortable. But those fat tests were the reason that he decided not to play basketball his senior year. That was when Thomas had insisted on testing him and, when he was naked, rubbed the teen’s shoulders and back and said he’d be there for him.
To the public, Thomas had built an impressive reputation as a boys basketball coach. He was seen as someone who was methodical, who would analyze his own players’ abilities as well as their opponents’. He was lauded as one of the best high school boys basketball coaches in the state, someone whose opinion was sought by other coaches and sportswriters, and as a color commentator at some of the high school championship games.
To many students at NKHS, however, his fat tests were an open, and uncomfortable, secret that went back for years. The investigator’s report even indicates that a member of the North Kingstown police force may have been subjected to fat testing as a student.
“When he heard that Aaron Thomas was ‘let go’ from his position, he was speaking with another officer on the force and asked if it was because of the body fat test,” the report reads. “The other officer indicated surprise when he widened his eyes. The officer responded, ‘do you know about that?’ He was then referred to give an account to Detective Mulligan.” Detective Christopher Mulligan is leading the criminal investigation.
The earliest that an adult was known to intervene was in 2017, when the wrestling coach and former athletic director, Howie Hague, happened to see Thomas in his classroom with a half-dressed male athlete. Hague interrupted them, later telling an investigator that he knew “the optics would subject Thomas to scrutiny.” Hague told then-principal Denise Mancieri and then-Athletic Director Dick Fossa, and also told Thomas any testing should be done in the locker room. Fossa, who died in 2020, also told Hague that the issue had been addressed, according to the school committee’s investigator’s report.
Months later in 2018, when a former student told Superintendent Phil Auger about the fat tests, in 2018, Thomas was told again to stop conducting the fat tests alone with students. The lawyer for five former athletes says that Thomas continued to do them.
In March 2019, Thomas won his 401st game and his basketball team clinched its program’s first Division I title and their first-ever State Championship trophy from the Rhode Island Interscholastic League. The Rhode Island Basketball Coaches Association made Thomas the Division I Coach of the Year. The senior athletes gave Thomas an award at their banquet.
His team clinched its program's first Division I title two weeks ago, and tonight North Kingstown boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas' Skippers added their first-ever RIIL State Championship trophy to the case, as well.#CUBC2019@NFHS_Org@NoKingstownHS @NKBoosterClub pic.twitter.com/h1CbzE6WhO— RIIL (@RIIL_sports) March 18, 2019
In February 2020, Words Unlimited, the statewide organization of sports writers, named him Rhode Island “Schoolboy Coach of the Year.”
In January 2021, just seeing the Skippers playing in the high school gym prompted one of Thomas’ former players and former assistant coaches, Eric Misunas, to tweet enthusiastically. “I am beyond lucky that I learned how to coach from him and he was gracious enough to show me the ropes,” he tweeted. “I was ecstatic when he got his championship, it was so well deserved! He’s a great coach and an even better person.”
I am beyond lucky that I learned how to coach from him and he was gracious enough to show me the ropes. I was ecstatic when he got his championship, it was so well deserved! He’s a great coach and an even better person— Eric Misunas (@BeerMonkeyBrew) January 24, 2021
A month later, Thomas’ career was over.
A former student emailed Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri about the naked fat tests, in detail. “He did this to dozens if not hundreds of boys over a ~10 year period to my knowledge,” he added. Behind closed doors, the School Committee voted unanimously to terminate Thomas, and new criminal and internal investigations were launched. By summer, the committee’s independent investigator, lawyer Matthew Oliverio, warned that the star coach was “a potential threat and liability.”
North Kingstown Police Captain John Urban had been a school resource officer at the high school in 2007 and ran the law enforcement club. He declined to comment about the ongoing investigation, but said he was not involved.
As for his time at the high school, Urban said in an email to the Globe, “As a matter of general practice, as the school resource officer if I had ever saw or heard of anything that could affect the safety or wellbeing of students, it would’ve been appropriately investigated and reported to school administrators.”
For some of the former athletes, the controversy has brought them together and helped them understand what happened. “A lot of my old friends are connecting, and it’s made us stronger,” one of the men said. “We’re a lot more open in talking about it and being honest that it did make us uncomfortable.”
The attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police are conducting a criminal investigation into Thomas, federal civil rights prosecutors are digging into the school department, the independent investigator for the school committee is submitting a deeper report later this month about Thomas’ actions, and a retired Superior Court judge has begun to review the findings from all on behalf of the town council.
Town Council President Greg Mancini said he’s confident that the facts will come, but he’s concerned that the results may end up dividing the community. Some may not believe what the reports find and demand changes in the school, he said.
“But, the concern to me, first, is the kids in community, to make sure that they are being taken care of, that kids with issues come forward. That’s the second issue for me, the third issue for me,” Mancini said. “After that I certainly want to know, the community wants to know, what happened.”