NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Within days of a damning investigative report that faulted school administrators for turning a blind eye to former high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas’ “naked fat tests” of boys, three top school district administrators have left or are retiring earlier than planned.
School District Chief Operating Officer Mary King told the Town Council during Friday’s budget meeting that she moved up her retirement to June, instead of December. “I am a hundred percent sure,” she said, when one council member questioned her decision.
Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri announced in a letter that she was retiring Thursday, instead of at the end of the school year, saying she was doing it to support the district in “healing.”
“For those who know me, I believe you know my passion for students, their rights, and my ability to remove people from positions who are not doing right by our students,” she wrote. “For the students, current and alumni, you have always been my reason for being an educator.”
Superintendent Phil Auger announced on March 9 that he was leaving immediately, saying the school district needed new leadership in the aftermath of the allegations against Thomas. Michael Waterman, the district’s director of information technology, was appointed acting superintendent.
Auger cited the ongoing investigation into Thomas as his reason for leaving, but defended his handling of the issue. “I remain steadfast in the knowledge that I acted appropriately and immediately in the best interest of students past and present, with the information I had at the time,” he said in a letter to the school community.
Lawyer Matthew Oliverio, who was hired by the School Committee to investigate what school officials knew about Thomas and what they did to protect students, singled out Auger and Mancieri for criticism in his latest report, which was released by the school committee on Monday night.
“This account illustrates the complete lack of oversight over the inappropriate conduct of Mr. Thomas,” Oliverio wrote.
Thomas, 54, is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police, who have received complaints from several former athletes who allege that the coach examined their naked bodies while alone with them in his office.
Thomas would 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 endured having Thomas touch them with skin-fold calipers or his fingers on their groins, upper thighs, and buttocks, or having them do stretches while naked.
One former athlete told Auger about the unclothed fat tests in 2018; Auger denied that he was told the boys were naked.
When other former athletes came forward in 2021, the School Committee voted unanimously to terminate Thomas. He resigned in June 2021 and was quickly hired by Monsignor Clarke School in nearby South Kingstown. The Catholic school fired him in early November 2021, soon after the most recent allegations surfaced.
Retired Superior Court judge Susan McGuirl is also conducting a review for the Town Council, and a team from the US Department of Justice is expected to visit the school district sometime next month, following a complaint by five former athletes accusing school officials of ignoring Thomas’s misconduct and allowing him to use his position inappropriately.
The School Committee hired Oliverio last year, before Thomas left the school district, to investigate the allegations. After the accusations became public, the committee released the report to the public in December. That report showed that multiple school officials — administrators, athletic directors, and coaches — were aware for years that Thomas was conducting “fat tests” alone on male student athletes but didn’t stop him.
Oliverio’s second report, released on Monday, was intended to determine what school officials knew about Thomas’ actions and what steps they took to stop him. He interviewed students, parents, teachers, coaches, and administrators.
Oliverio found that Thomas “deliberately concealed his conduct from those in a position of authority” for more than 20 years. Some teachers and administrators at North Kingstown High School knew Thomas was conducting so-called “fat tests,” but said they didn’t know the students were undressed and alone with him, he wrote.
While Mancieri and Auger were both forthright, sincere, and cooperative, Oliverio ultimately determined their trust in the longtime coach made them blind to his deception.
“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.
One “critical” witness didn’t respond to his requests for an interview, Oliverio wrote: former longtime athletic director Keith Kenyon, who is now principal of Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans, Massachusetts. Kenyon was close to Thomas, and Oliverio thought it was evident that Thomas’ fat-testing program was an extension of the Athletic IQ testing program that Kenyon had spearheaded.
The investigator emailed Kenyon on Dec. 3 at his school email — subject line: “Aaron Thomas and North Kingstown Public Schools Investigation” — and called numbers on file with the School District. “He has neglected to respond to any of my inquiries,” Oliverio wrote.
Kenyon had declined comment about Thomas when contacted by the Globe on his school email Dec. 20. On Friday, he emailed a statement about Oliverio’s report from his personal email.
“I’ve fully, and without reservation, cooperated with each and every investigator and agency that has contacted me regarding this matter. And I will continue to do so whenever, and if ever, I am again contacted. Any statement to the contrary is simply untrue,” Kenyon said in a statement. “Out of respect for the still open investigation I will make no further public comment.”
Further questions from the Globe led to emails from his lawyer, Boston attorney Andrea Kramer.
“Mr. Kenyon never received any messages from Mr. Oliverio. Had he, he would have responded as he has to all other non-journalist inquiries,” Kramer wrote. “He is not doubting Mr. Oliverio may have attempted to reach him, but Mr. Kenyon never received those attempts.”
“We have confirmed that the phone numbers Mr. Oliverio used in trying to contact Mr. Kenyon are old phone numbers that Mr. Kenyon has not used for years,” she wrote. “As for the email, we cannot explain why Mr. Kenyon did not receive it, but he did not. As we all know, emails can get caught in spam or accidentally deleted.”
Oliverio did not immediately respond to their statements Friday.
The three sudden departures of top school administrators within a week and a half caught the school district by surprise.
“Yesterday, the North Kingstown School Committee received notice that Dr. Denise Mancieri has retired, effective immediately,” School Committee Chairman Gregory Blasbalg said in a statement Friday. “While we originally planned for her June 2022 retirement, we will use these next few months to work collaboratively with Interim Superintendent Michael Waterman to support our students, staff and families of the North Kingstown School District and our search for permanent leadership at the district.”
The School Committee is holding a meeting Tuesday and is expected to respond to Oliverio’s report.
After King made her surprise announcement during Friday’s budget meeting, Town Council President Greg Mancini commended her for her service.
Meanwhile, the Town Council is waiting for McGuirl to submit her review of the investigations, possibly in the next several weeks, Mancini said.
Oliverio’s report hit the town hard. “A lot of people are upset,” Mancini said. “I think a lot of people want to turn the page, but it’s not been easy.”
Lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who represents some of the former student-athletes and their families, said they are feeling validated.
“They take great solace in seeing accountability for the mismanagement in the schools, and the fact that the clear warnings that have been traced back as far as 2017 were effectively ignored,” Conlon said Friday. “There were families that were being torn apart when kids felt they couldn’t speak to them about what happened, that are now becoming united to force change. And this sends a very strong signal to families, students, and to former students that not only is it ok to come forward, but it’s important to come forward, because coming forward and getting the truth out is the only way to force accountability and bring change.”