Some residents at Tuesday’s meeting accused them of failing to take action against school officials who failed to take action against Thomas. Why was the public not made aware of the allegations against Thomas and the fact that he was fired? Why did it take school officials so long to report him to the state Department of Education? What will the committee do about current or retired public servants 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 “particularly difficult time” that did not directly answer participants’ questions. Instead, the statement detailed the process for disciplining or firing any administrator or teacher, and how that requires a full hearing of evidence.
“The purpose of [investigative] report was to gather evidence to present at such a possible hearing so that we could act. We had to be able to establish and prove facts that would stand up in court,” Vice President Lisa Hildebrand said, reading the statement aloud. “Any such action prior to this would have been speculative, premature and subject to legal action. Unfortunately, due to timing, we sometimes do not have the capacity to take all of these actions and an employee decides to resign.
Hildebrand said there was “no agreement” with any of the employees who left.
“You 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 the process is frustrating. There are procedures to follow. If they aren’t, the employee will prevail in a lawsuit against that district, possibly get their job back, and potentially significant damages. Also understand that you are angry. We do too, but we have to obey the law.
Committee member Jake Mather told the audience that the members were also upset by the situation.
“It’s also our community. We are your chosen ones, but our children go to this school, just like your children go to these schools,” Mather said. “We’re not trying to hide anything. It’s extremely difficult for everyone, including us.
Mather added that he often felt like his hands were tied. “We try to go through the process as best we can and as quickly as possible, but at the end of the day we can’t force anyone to stay,” he said. “It’s our neighborhood, our community too. 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 began review everyone’s findings on behalf of the city council.
Saying he was doing body fat testing to improve their athletic performance, Thomas has been running one-on-one meetings with boys in his office for over 20 years. Once they were with him, he would ask them “Are you shy or not shy?” Those who weren’t shy then had to remove their underwear or drop their towels, and Thomas used skinfold calipers and his own hands to measure their bodies, including around their groins.
Thomas admitted, through his criminal defense attorney, to asking the boys to strip naked because he said it made it easier for him to carry out the tests he designed – which doctors said at the Globe didn’t look like legitimate fat tests.
The committee last year hired attorney Matthew Oliverio to investigate the allegations. The report, completed confidentially after Thomas was fired last year and released in December after the allegations became public, called Thomas a “potential threat and liability” to the high school community.
Oliverio’s second report, which the committee released on March 14, looked in more detail at how Thomas was able to escape the discipline and scrutiny of his peers and administrators. The lawyer also saw how intimate the ‘fat tests’ were: a boy who had the tests from 2017 to 2019 revealed in Oliverio’s report that the trainer became ‘visibly excited’ when touching him .
The attorney for some of the former student-athletes said he was unimpressed with the committee’s statement.
“Local residents asked questions at this meeting that beg for answers — obvious questions that attempt to make sense of the contradictory and confusing path this has taken,” Timothy J. Conlon said after the meeting. “The school committee responded with a prepared statement that didn’t answer any of their questions and went on to say it was difficult for the committee. I can tell you that these parents have gone deaf.
“The school board knew as early as June that there were significant issues and it appears they took no action in relation to those issues until November,” Conlon added. “So it really should come as no surprise that people are demanding answers now.”
Amanda Milkovits can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.