NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A second former student athlete who said he was subjected to high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas’ naked “fat tests” has filed a lawsuit against the school committee and former school officials — and more are expected to follow.
Lawyer Timothy J. Conlon said Wednesday that he plans to contact the school department about multiple forthcoming complaints, all alleging that former school administrators and athletic directors created a culture that allowed coaches to behave inappropriately with students, and brushed off complaints. Some are against other school staff.
“You have 20 years of history of people being uncomfortable with and seeing behaviors that anyone should be uncomfortable with, in the open, in the school, and the behaviors were not addressed, because the students were not comfortable in the environment they were in,” Conlon said Wednesday.
In this case, Thomas wasn’t even the former student’s coach. The former student, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 23, didn’t play basketball.
However, he alleged, Thomas sought him out anyway for private body fat testing in the fall of 2017.
When the former student finally agreed to be tested, he found himself in the same position as countless other teenage boys at North Kingstown High School since the mid-1990s: alone in a room with Thomas, who persuaded him to undress completely.
Other former athletes said that the coach used a familiar phrase, “Are you shy or not shy?” Those who weren’t “shy” would remove their underwear and stand naked before Thomas, who they said positioned himself close and touched their bodies, often near their groins, and made them do stretches. Thomas’ criminal defense lawyer told the Globe in 2021 that the coach had them strip because it was quicker to do the tests when they were naked.
The former student said Thomas’ face was within 12 to 15 inches of his exposed genitals, and the coach touched him close to his genitals, under the pretext of pinching his skin and taking measurements.
After that experience, the former student said he refused or ignored Thomas when the coach asked him to do more testing. The former student suffered from embarrassment and shame from the incident, and did not tell his parents or his sibling for years, according to the lawsuit.
He graduated from North Kingstown High School in 2019 and only came forward recently, Conlon said. The lawsuit was filed in Providence County Superior Court on May 25, before the former student turned 21.
The three-year statute of limitations in traditional negligence cases doesn’t run while the complainant is a minor, Conlon said.
Thomas resigned in June 2021, after about 30 years as a teacher and basketball coach in North Kingstown, after the school committee voted to terminate him in February 2021. He then got a job at Monsignor Clarke School, a Catholic School in South Kingstown, even though two former athletes said they warned the school and Diocese about him. He was fired last fall after the allegations became public.
Thomas, 54, is under criminal investigation by the North Kingstown police and attorney general’s office, but has not been charged with a crime.
The former student and his parents are seeking damages for negligence by North Kingstown school officials. “Thomas’ inappropriate and unprofessional conduct continued without any meaningful supervision, and indeed with the tacit approval of the administration for the two decades of his employment,” Conlon wrote in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges that the school district allowed for an erosion of boundaries between coaches and students that left children unprotected.
“Steeped in a culture that prioritized loyalty to the school and athletic success over the safety of children, [the] defendants marginalized complaining parents, and students were not only not warned about the utter lack of professional boundaries, but swept into ‘going along’ with practices that were grossly inconsistent with appropriate professional standards, yet passed off as routine,” Conlon wrote in the lawsuit.
Conlon previously 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. Federal civil rights prosecutors are investigating.
Conlon is also representing another former athlete, “John Doe 42,” and his father in a similar lawsuit filed in April in Providence County Superior Court. All five current school committee members are named: Gregory Blasbalg, Lisa Hildebrand, Jennifer Hoskins, Jennifer Lima, and Jake Mather.
Both lawsuits target the school committee members, the town finance director and former school officials who had direct supervision of Thomas, including 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.
Thornton is now superintendent of Cumberland schools. Auger and Mancieri retired abruptly in March, when an independent investigator released a scathing report about how they handled complaints about Thomas. Hague is still a teacher at North Kingstown High School.
Kenyon resigned last week as principal of Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans, Mass., saying the situation in North Kingstown had become a “distraction” and that he has “done nothing wrong.”
Kenyon 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. Foley told the Globe in an interview a few months ago that Kenyon was responsible for managing Thomas.