A former North Kingstown (R.I.) 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.
As reported by the Boston Globe, 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.
The lawsuit further alleges that Thomas was no alone among coaches in his abuse of power, the Globe reported, but complaints about such behaviors were brushed off or buried by administrators.
The lawsuit claims that John Doe was instructed in November 2015 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, the Globe reported.
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.”
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, according to the Globe.
John Doe, 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.
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,” the Globe reported.
Kenyon resigned in August 2009, as the school administration received preliminary results of an audit into alleged spending abuses. But Kenyon, who had been Thomas' direct supervisor since the 1990s, 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.
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.
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.
According to the Globe, 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.