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RI CRIME

Former student athlete files lawsuit against North Kingstown school officials, athletic directors

People protesting North Kingstown superintendent Phil Auger hold up signs during a North Kingstown school committee meeting at North Kingstown High School in North Kingstown, Rhode Island on Nov. 16, 2021.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A former North Kingstown High School student-athlete and his father are accusing former school administrators and athletic directors of fostering a culture that allowed coaches to behave inappropriately with students and brushed off or buried complaints.

The former student, identified as John Doe 42 in a civil lawsuit filed Tuesday in Providence County Superior Court, is seeking damages for negligence for being subjected to the “naked fat tests” that former boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas had performed for years on teen male athletes.

And, the lawsuit also alleges that Thomas is not the only coach at North Kingstown who has been allowed to abuse a position of power.

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In November 2015, the lawsuit said, the student was instructed to remove his clothes for Thomas and stand before him. With his head about 12 to 15 inches away from the boy’s crotch, Thomas then touched the boy’s body, moving his hands within inches of the boy’s genitals, the lawsuit said.

The experience was so disturbing that the boy ended up in mental health counseling, the lawsuit said. “His embarrassment and shame ... was such that he could not disclose these events to his father for years,” according to the lawsuit.

The former athlete and his father are represented by lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who is also representing other former students in a complaint and writ of replevin against Thomas in Washington County Superior Court. Conlon has asked Thomas and the School Department to turn over records involving those students.

Conlon also filed a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of five former students, alleging that school officials ignored Thomas’ misconduct, delayed reporting him to the state Department of Education, and allowed Thomas to use his position inappropriately. A team of civil rights prosecutors was visiting the high school to investigate the complaint.

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This lawsuit seeks damages on behalf of a new alleged victim – and sues former administrators and athletic directors for a culture that allowed coaches in the school district to have inappropriate contact with students.

Conlon said Wednesday that he’s spoken with 42 current and former students who’ve complained about Thomas’ conduct. He confirmed that he’s also spoken with families about incidents at other North Kingstown schools involving other coaches, but did not identify them.

“In speaking with kids from multiple schools at North Kingstown, it’s become apparent that the power the coaches have there is something that can get out of control, and the kids are in a position where recognition by the coach … is important and unfortunately creates a situation in which the kids can be taken advantage of,” Conlon said. “We contend the system is broken down.”

The former athlete, who turns 21 later this week, and his father are suing school committee members, the town finance director and former school officials who had direct supervision of Thomas. They include former superintendents Philip Thornton and Philip Auger, former assistant superintendent Denise Mancieri, retired principal Gerald Foley, and former athletic directors Keith Kenyon and Howie Hague.

School committee chairman Gregory Blasbalg said in a statement Wednesday evening that the school department and committee were aware of the lawsuit. “Both the School Department and School Committee are cooperating with all investigations and will not have any further comment relative to the lawsuit or the investigation until such time as the investigations are complete,” Blasbalg wrote in an email.

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Thornton, who is superintendent of Cumberland schools, did not respond to a request for comment.

Thomas, 54, is under criminal investigation by the attorney general’s office and North Kingstown police, and a retired Superior Court judge is reviewing the findings from the lawsuits and investigations 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. Those who met with him got the same question, “Are you shy or not shy?” Those who said they weren’t shy would remove their underwear or drop their towels, to allow Thomas to examine and measure their bodies, including their groins. Thomas used skin-fold calipers and touched them with his bare hands.

One boy who went through the testing from 2017 through 2019 disclosed 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.

The School Committee voted unanimously to terminate Thomas in February 2021, after then-Superintendent Auger notified them of complaints by former students.

Thomas left before the end of the school year, but was hired by Monsignor Clark School in nearby South Kingstown, which fired him last fall after the complaints became public.

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However, that wasn’t the first time complaints were made to the administration.

Auger and Mancieri retired abruptly in March, when an independent investigator hired by the school committee released a scathing report about how their administration responded to past complaints about Thomas’ “naked fat tests.”

Lawyer Matthew Oliverio criticized Auger, Mancieri, and Hague, who is a math teacher at the high school, for how they handled the discovery of Thomas’ tests of teen boys in his office.

Kenyon, who is now principal of Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans, Mass., had been the athletic director since 1985 and was Thomas’ direct supervisor since the 1990s. He made Thomas an assistant football coach and, later, the Varsity basketball coach, and put him in charge of the summer sports programs.

Around 2005, Kenyon also involved Thomas in a private, for-profit testing company for high school athletes, Athletic IQ, and assigned Thomas and another coach to operate the body fat testing station for students in North Kingstown.

Kenyon resigned in August 2009, as the school administration received preliminary results of an audit into alleged spending abuses.

But Kenyon had given Thomas authority to conduct the “sham program,” the lawsuit alleges, and Thomas used his coaching position to get access to children at North Kingstown and other places as a pretext to conduct intimate physical examinations.

Kenyon said Wednesday that he hadn’t seen the complaint.

“While I am very sorry about and horrified by what the athletes experienced, I am confident I will be vindicated,” Kenyon said in a statement. “I was not aware of, and had never heard a single whisper about, Aaron Thomas conducting tests on students who were naked or with underwear removed or pulled down. Had I any such idea, I would have immediately stopped the practice, kept Mr. Thomas away from student athletes, and recommended the termination of his employment.”

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Kenyon also said that allegations regarding the relationship between Athletic IQ and North Kingstown were “entirely inaccurate.”

Kenyon’s former boss, retired principal Gerald Foley, is also named in the lawsuit.

Foley told the Globe in an interview a few months ago that he hadn’t known about Thomas’ fat testing, and said he thought the coach had been doing a good job with the students.

Foley said Kenyon was responsible for managing Thomas and the other coaches and was “hands-on” with his coaches and the sports programs.

“During my tenure, I never heard anything from Keith about Aaron Thomas and his athletic programs,” Foley told the Globe, “but, you don’t know exactly what’s going on in your schools.”


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