NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — High school basketball coach Aaron Thomas had been invincible for so long. A championship coach, a top fundraiser for school athletics, the face of the North Kingstown basketball program -- no one questioned what he was doing with student-athletes or why he was conducting his “fat tests” on them.
Instead, it took more than 20 years and several of those former students, now adults, to stop Thomas from making the teenage boys at North Kingstown High School pose and stretch in a small room off of his office, naked and alone with him as he measured their body fat, pinching and exploring the skin near their genitals with calipers and, sometimes, his bare hands.
In February 2021, when a former student athlete’s plea to school officials finally prompted them to put Thomas on leave and investigate, the longtime coach was indignant.
“‘This isn’t true,’” high school principal Barbara Morse recalled Thomas saying at the time, according to an independent investigative report by lawyer Matthew Oliverio. And then, he homed in on one of his former players: “‘There is a kid, and I know who it is, who is out to get me. In fact, his father wrote me a letter.’”
Oliverio’s investigative report, released by the School Committee late Monday night, found that school officials had turned a blind eye to what Thomas had been doing, and ultimately failed to protect students.
The former athlete whom Thomas blamed told the Globe Tuesday that he felt validated.
“I’m contented that my truth is aligning with others’ reality of the situation; and I’m happy that the community has the facts required to make a judgement,” he said in a text message. (The Globe does not publicly identify alleged victims of possible sexual assault without their permission.) “I feel gratitude towards those who spoke up, and am as optimistic as ever at the prospect of positive outcomes. I’m especially grateful to my family for listening when no one else dared.”
His complaint, along with complaints from other former students, have led to criminal and civil investigations of Thomas and the school district.
Thomas, 54, is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police, federal civil rights prosecutors are investigating the school department, and a retired Superior Court judge has begun to review the findings from all on behalf of the town council.
Saying that he was conducting body-fat tests to improve their athletic performance, Thomas arranged meetings with boys one-on-one in his office for more than 20 years. Once they were with him, he would ask them “Are you shy or not shy?” Those who were not shy were then expected to remove their underwear or drop their towels, and Thomas would use skin-fold calipers and his own hands to measure their bodies, including around their groins. One boy who went through the testing from 2017 through 2019 disclosed in Oliverio’s report that the coach became “visibly aroused” while touching him.
Thomas has admitted, through his criminal defense lawyer, to asking the boys to remove their clothes because he said it made it “easier” for him to conduct the tests he’d devised — which doctors have told the Globe do not resemble legitimate fat tests.
Oliverio, who was hired by the School Committee in 2021 to look at how school officials handled complaints against Thomas, found that school officials and fellow coaches were blinded by their trust in the longtime coach. So much so, that they didn’t follow up to make sure Thomas was complying with their own orders in 2017 and 2018 to stop testing teen boys alone in his office.
Oliverio’s first investigation, conducted last year, called Thomas “a potential threat and liability” to the high school community and described how other coaches and administrators had appeared reluctant to question him or adamantly gave their support of him. The School Committee released it in December, after the allegations against Thomas had become public.
The most-recent report by Oliverio furthers examined how Thomas was able to evade discipline and scrutiny among his peers and his administrators.
Another former basketball player questioned whether Oliverio’s findings would have come to light if it hadn’t been for pressure from former student-athletes like him.
“Regarding the administration’s (mis)handling of Aaron Thomas, it’s not surprising to read that the independent investigator came to the same conclusion we did more than a year ago,” he told the Globe via text on Tuesday. “However, it still troubles me that this second report wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for us demanding to see the first report. There was never a plan to make the first report public, and that doesn’t sit well with me to this day.”
Oliverio wrote about the anger, regret, and betrayal voiced by some of Thomas’ peers — other teachers and coaches, former bosses, all who’d believed in Thomas’ reputation and ultimately missed what was happening.
Kevin Gormley, a well-liked baseball coach and teacher who’d originally been supportive of Thomas, now told Oliverio that his faith in the former coach was “the biggest misreading of character in my life.”
Gormley told Oliverio that after Thomas left, some of the former students who’d been through the fat tests spoke with him about their experiences.
He wished he’d known before, “because testing kids while naked is a hundred percent inappropriate,” Gormley said, according to Oliverio’s report. He regretted that the student hadn’t felt comfortable to speak to him about it, and the revelations had caused him many sleepless nights since. “If only one student had a problem with it, that is one too many.”
Parents, also, found out about that their sons were fat-tested only after the allegations became public.
However, school officials who saw something unusual or were told about complaints didn’t conduct any investigation or ask questions, or just took Thomas at his word.
They breached their duty to the students and their parents, Oliverio found.
The investigator particularly singled out Superintendent Phil Auger, Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri, and math teacher Howie Hague, who was the athletic director, for criticism about how they handled complaints.
Hague saw Thomas close the door to his office while alone with a half-dressed boy. Hague told Mancieri, who was then the principal and the incoming athletic director Dick Fossa, but otherwise took no action. Neither did Mancieri, who expressed concern that the fat tests were conducted in the office and didn’t ask whether the student was being harmed, Oliverio wrote.
A former student told Auger in 2018 about being undressed during fat tests, so the superintendent had a meeting with Thomas and other school officials, where he told Thomas to stop testing students one-on-one and to instead use a new body-composition measuring machine. Auger recalled that Thomas said he’d been doing the testing since the late 1990s, with “full knowledge from the athletic community and that no one had a problem with it,” Oliverio wrote.
Thomas also said he gathered permission slips from parents, but Auger didn’t ask to see them. A copy obtained by the Globe last fall showed there was no mention of nudity. Emails sent by Thomas to students, included in the new report, confirmed that Thomas was still conducting his own version of fat-testing in private, in addition to using the new measuring machine in a more-public area.
The superintendent never followed up to find out if Thomas was following protocols, Oliverio found. He also didn’t know that the coach was emailing the students privately.
Thomas lied to school officials and deviated from their instructions, Oliverio wrote, but there was no oversight. “The abject failure and neglect of monitoring and oversight over Mr. Thomas’ conduct after September 2018 by the Superintendent can logically be considered neglect of duty,” Oliverio wrote.
Auger resigned last week, saying the school district needed new leadership in the wake of the Thomas investigation.
Mancieri did not attend Monday’s meeting of the School Committee. An assistant superintendent job was posted on March 2; committee chairman Gregory Blasbalg and district’s attorney Mary Ann Carroll did not respond to questions about Mancieri’s position.
Attorney Timothy J. Conlon, who is representing some of the former athletes, said the report was “a shocking indictment of the mismanagement by school administrators.”
Conlon also saw a common thread between what happened at North Kingstown High School and in cases involving clergy accused of sexual misconduct with children, and how trust can blind well-intentioned people.
“Parents are relying on administrators and other supervisors to protect their kids and are betrayed when those persons in turn trust someone who they like and who they perceive as a good guy,” Conlon said. “Unfortunately, the motives of the actors are not necessarily apparent at first blush, and there is a tendency to want to believe it couldn’t be anything other that what they are told is going on.
“Which,” he added, “is how these things can perpetuate themselves.”