NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — As we prepare to leave 2021 behind it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. After the pandemic year that was 2020, many of us hoped that this year would bring us a return to some semblance of normality. In some ways that’s just what we got. Restaurants reopened, schools began to hold in person classes and those who were fully vaccinated were once more able to safely venture into the outside world without a mask.
Now with the emergence of the even more infectious omicron strain of the COVID virus bringing new mask mandates and concerns to our lives again it can be easy to lose sight of everything else that has happened around us. So for those looking for a recap of the non-COVID related news from 2021 here are five stories that influenced North Kingstown this year.
The Thomas Allegations
Aaron Thomas, head basketball coach at North Kingstown High since the 1990s, resigned suddenly amid a school department investigation into claims of misconduct in June of this year.
Former students alleged that Thomas had on multiple occasions asked students to strip naked in front of him behind closed doors for “body fat checks.”
School officials kept the reason for his departure under wraps until several media outlets broke the news in October that numerous former students had accused Thomas of inappropriate contact, and that his actions were being investigated by the state Attorney General’s office.
At that point, school officials released an email to parents that said Thomas had resigned over “job performance.”
“Mr. Thomas was a teacher and a coach in the North Kingstown School Department until he resigned in June 2021,” Superintendent Phil Auger wrote. “Prior to his resignation the school department received an allegation regarding his job performance.”
Auger said at the time that he was legally barred from saying more.
After more allegations were aired in the local media however, school officials changed course. After the story broke the school committee held a six-hour closed door meeting in which they drafted an official statement – revealing that officials knew of some of the allegations as far back as 2018.
Under public and media scrutiny, the school committee admitted it had hired attorney Michael Oliverio to investigate the allegations. They later released a redacted version of Oliverio’s report, which contained an accusation of sexual assault by an anonymous former student.
The town council later moved to commission an independent review of school officials’ response to the allegations.
Auger has repeatedly defended his handling of the matter despite numerous calls for him to step down or be terminated.
“To that end I want to share with you my account of the two occasions when I contacted Mr. Thomas and body fat testing,” Auger said in one statement. “The first was in the fall of 2018. I received very limited information from a former student that attended from 2006-2008.”
Auger said that he was approached outside of school by an alumni who asked him if it was normal that Coach Thomas conducted body fat tests on students. Auger said that when he pressed for more information the former student declined to elaborate.
It was at this point, Auger said, that he set up a meeting with Thomas, Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri, a union representative and former Principal and Athletic Director Dick Fossa to discuss his concerns.
“Thomas acknowledged that he had conducted body mass and body fat tests going back to the late 1990’s,” said Auger. “He stated that he often conducted these tests as a favor to students, that there was widespread knowledge of him doing so and that once he had an office in the new high school he conducted them in the office in order to more easily enter data into his computer.”
It was at this point that Thomas was told that any future testing was to be done in the locker room with at least two adults present. It wasn’t until another student came forward in 2021 that Auger suspended Thomas, contacted the police and that the school committee began its investigation.
Auger and most school officials have repeatedly declined to publicly answer questions about the matter, except in the form of issuing crafted statements.
Diversity Subcommittee and Critical Race Theory spark tension locally
A motion to create a subcommittee tasked with developing annual goals to help students of all backgrounds achieve their potential was met with pushback by a group of parents and citizens.
Those against the committee argued that it was a way to teach “Critical Race Theory.” Those speaking out about CRT said that the subcommittee was another in a line of moves by the school committee, specifically Committee Member Jen Lima who put forth the motion for the committee, to teach students a curriculum biased against being white.
“What we do have in the schools is a push for a race based curriculum,” said Providence school teacher Ramona Bessinger while speaking against the need for the sub-committee. “Race based curriculum is divisive, it’s promoting racial hostility… However, these curriculum packages Wit & Wisdom… they’re not what you think they are. They are not filled with racial tolerance, they’re not diverse, equitable or inclusive.”
A petition was circulated to recall Lima from her position. The attempt to remove Lima from the school committee was met with resistance from her supporters.
“I am an educator and I am a parent and I am appalled. First of all, diversity, equity and inclusion. How is that negative? I don’t understand. I’m baffled,” said Natalie O’Neill.
The petition to have Lima recalled would have required 3,102 signatures in order to move forward to a vote, but those in favor of Lima’s recall failed to garner enough support for their cause and the petition was never filed.
Elizabeth Beisel Swims to Block Island
Elizabeth Beisel, the three-time Olympian swimmer and 2016 Team USA captain, made history as the first woman to ever swim the 10.4 mile journey from Matunuck to Block Island.
“I envisioned my dad on the island waiting for me to finish with an ear-to-ear grin on his face — how proud he would be that I made it,” Beisel said. “Sadly, he passed before I could make this swim, but he knew I was going to do it and that helped sustain him during his final months. I’ll never get to hug him again, but his fight wasn’t for nothing.”
Choppy water postponed Beisel’s swim twice but on September 25 Beisel entered the water at her father’s favorite restaurant, Ocean Mist, before striding out of the water onto Block Island 5 hours and 19 minutes later.
Beisel was able to use this monumental task as a way to help raise money for cancer research. The open-water challenge, called Block Cancer, was a fundraiser for the nonprofit Swim Across America, which is dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, and Beisel raised over $135,000 towards the cause.
“I’ve been a supporter of Liz since she was in elementary school, coming through the public school system,” said Beisel’s high school physical education teacher. “This is so special because of the incredible person that she is, and accomplishing so many goals at such a young age. Outstanding goals. I can’t say enough of the quality of person she is.”
North Kingston native helps land a rover on Mars
Nate Gardner, who graduated with both a bachelor’s degree and doctorate from URI, helped his fellow engineers at NASA to successfully land the Perseverance Rover on Mars.
Gardner, as lead project engineer, was tasked with making sure the rover’s heat shields would be able to protect it and make sure it survived both the launch and the entry into Mars’ atmosphere.
“We had only one shot to get this right. There would be no do-overs because of the timing of Mars being close to earth and the mission’s schedule dependent on that part,” Gardner said.
Gardner’s specialties lie in the area of photogrammetry. This is the art and science of retrieving and extracting three-dimensional information from photographs.
This proved to be a valuable skill as Gardner’s work helped make the mission a success. The rover landed on Mars in April of 2021 and continues to send valuable scientific data back to Earth thanks to the work of people like Nate Gardner.
“It really didn’t hit me until I saw things come to fruition,” Gardner said. “It was very humbling and exciting at the same time.”
Port of Davisville opens new berth
Gov. Dan McKee cut the ribbon on the new east berth of Pier 2 at the Port of Davisville on May 28 marking the completion of one piece of a project funded by a $50 million bond voters approved in 2016.
The project took several years and involved dredging, construction to complete a pier extension and the coordination of the more than 24 companies involved in the work.
“Quonset Business Park is a great example of what our state can achieve with collaboration from public and private partners,” McKee said. “The growth of the offshore wind industry in Rhode Island is exciting and the Port of Davisville will play a key role. I look forward to working with the Quonset team and private companies at the park to usher in this renewable energy future for our state.”
The Port of Davisville, which has become one of the continent’s top 10 auto import centers, also had its first shipment of Audis, Porsche and Bentleys to the United States via the port this past June.
“We are right on the ocean waters, and the ship leaving the port here brings in about 1,400 jobs right here at Quonset and then working on opportunities for the state, but this falls right into the Rhode Island 2030 plan,“ McKee said. “They are not bringing these cars by ship into Montana, they are bringing them into Rhode Island because we are the Ocean State, so that’s the reason that we’re here to celebrate the progress but also to really highlight the opportunities that we have coming out of this pandemic.”