NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A week after a damning investigative report found school officials had turned a blind eye to high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas and his “naked fat tests” of teen boys, the School Committee pleaded for patience Tuesday as they decided how to move forward.
The superintendent and the assistant superintendent, who’d both been criticized for their slow reactions, have both abruptly resigned. The district’s chief operations officer moved up her retirement to June 30.
And now, public scrutiny is now on the school committee.
Some residents at Tuesday’s meeting accused them of failing to take action against the school officials who failed to take action against Thomas. Why wasn’t the public told about the allegations against Thomas and that he was terminated? Why did it take so long for school officials to report him to the state Department of Education? What will the committee do about the current or retired officials who should be held accountable?
“Are you going to hold yourself accountable, or are we going to have to wait until you are forced under oath to tell the truth?” asked North Kingstown resident Megan Reilly.
The School Committee responded with a statement about the “uniquely challenging time” that didn’t directly answer the questions from attendees. Instead, the statement detailed the process to discipline or fire any administrator or teacher, and how that requires a full evidentiary hearing.
“The purpose of the [investigative] report was to gather evidence to present at such a possible hearing so that we could act. We needed to be able to establish and proof facts that will stand up in court,” vice chairwoman Lisa Hildebrand said, reading the statement aloud. “Any such action prior to this would’ve been speculative, premature and likely subject to legal action. Unfortunately, due to the timing, sometimes we do not have the ability to take all of those steps and an employee decides to resign.”
Hildebrand said there were “no deals” with any of the employees who left.
“We cannot force someone to work or refuse to accept their resignation. An employee can terminate an employment contract at any time,” Hildebrand said. “We understand that the process is frustrating. There are procedures that must be followed. If they’re not, the employee will prevail in a suit against this district, possibly get their job back and potentially significant monetary damages as well. Also understand that you are angry. We are too, but we must follow the law.”
Committee member Jake Mather told the audience that the members were also upset about the situation.
“This is our community as well. We’re your elected officials, but our kids go to this school, just like your kids go to these schools,” said Mather. “We are not trying to cover anything up. This is tremendously difficult for everybody, including us.”
Mather added that he often feels like his hands are tied. “We are trying to work through the process as best we can and as quickly as we can, but ultimately we can’t force somebody to stay,” he said. “This is our neighborhood, our community as well. And we’re all going through this together.”
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.
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.
The committee hired lawyer Matthew Oliverio last year to investigate the allegations. That report, finished confidentially after Thomas was terminated last year and released in December after the allegations had become public, called Thomas “a potential threat and liability” to the high school community.
The second report by Oliverio, which the committee released on March 14, further examined how Thomas was able to evade discipline and scrutiny among his peers and his administrators. The lawyer also found how intimate the “fat tests” were: 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.
The lawyer for some of the former student athletes said he wasn’t impressed with the committee’s statement.
“The local residents asked questions at this meeting that cry out for answers — obvious questions that attempt to make sense of the contradictory and confusing path that this has taken,” Timothy J. Conlon said after the meeting. “The school committee responded with a prepared statement that answered none of their questions and followed up by saying this is hard on the committee. I can tell you it came off to these parents as tone deaf.”
“The school committee knew as of June that there were significant problems and it appears they took no action in connection with those problems until November,” Conlon added. “So, it really should not be surprised the people are demanding answers now.”