NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — When the boys began documenting how a teacher at Davisville Middle School was treating the girls in their class, they hoped to prove to adults that he was a “creep.”
Days after their “pedo database” became public, the boys are being heralded as heroes.
“I think it’s extraordinary. It’s empathetic. They saw an injustice and wanted to document it,” said Nan Stein, senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and the author of “Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools.” “I think their parents ought to be celebrated that they raised such wonderful boys. They ought to be given awards for being allies.”
“The outpouring from the community has been amazing,” said lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who represents current and former students with complaints against teachers and coaches in North Kingstown, including the former high school basketball coach who conducted naked “fat tests.”
“As far as I’m concerned, they are heroes,” Conlon said. “On behalf of the kids I represent, I can’t express how grateful I am that there are kids who know right from wrong and are going to act to protect their fellow students.”
On social media, people shared their own experiences and thanked the boys for taking action.
While the boys appreciate the praise and support, “they were not seeking attention for them — they were seeking that the right thing be done by these girls,” said Conlon.
And if this ends up getting people to understand that they need to pay attention to children, Conlon said, “then it’s a much broader step than these kids could have imagined.”
The boys were in sixth grade when they became uncomfortable with the way their teacher treated girls in their class. They tried telling adults about it, but were ignored or not taken seriously, one boy told the Globe.
By seventh grade, they started taking notes. And in January 2021 the boys, then 13 and 14 years old, set up a subchannel on Discord to keep track of what they heard and saw. The teacher, who was also a coach, gave the girls nicknames, goaded them to get up and dance, told them to wear bathing suits, and teased them.
They boys invited incoming students to continue documenting the teacher’s behavior; about eight boys added to the database over the course of a year. And when their teacher was finally escorted from the school and placed on leave in April, one of the boys told his mother about the database.
The “pedo database” is now part of a sprawling investigation under the federal anti-discrimination law Title IX, into how sexual harassment and misconduct allegations have been handled by the North Kingstown School District. The investigation began with former high school basketball coach Aaron Thomas, who has since been criminally charged with second-degree child molestation and second degree sexual assault for conducting private, naked “fat tests” of teenage boys since the mid-1990s. It has expanded with the allegations against the Davisville Middle School and another coach at the high school, who was also placed on leave this spring over allegations he was inappropriate with underage girls.
Stein, who has served as an expert witness in Title IX/sex discrimination-sexual harassment lawsuits in K-12 schools, said there are commonalities among teachers who were subject to complaints.
In an analysis of lawsuits during the 1990s, Stein said, the teachers were often in roles that offered both prestige and one-on-one time with children — mainly, coaches, band or music teachers, drama teachers, and driver’s education.
A student may seek help privately with their sport or practice, and for predators, that offers a chance for intimacy, she said.
“The coach can say, you don’t seem to be concentrating. Are you having trouble at home?” Stein said. “If it’s coming from an adult that cares about your performance, those questions seem appropriate, but that can erode some of the boundaries that should exist.”
The boys at Davisville Middle School did the right thing by keeping notes, she said. School administrators, not so much. “They need a housecleaning at that school,” Stein said.
Other students should be taught how to document problems, acting as “ethnographers” in their own schools, she suggested. And adults need to do better to make sure students are being heard.
When the boys tried to talk to adults, the adults often focused on the fact that the boys called the teacher a “pedophile.”
“Obviously, that’s a very severe term, but that’s just kind of the generalized word that everybody my age uses for someone who’s a creep to kids,” one of the boys told the Globe.
No one seemed interested in finding out what was going on, he said.
“Maybe if it was a girl who had directly experienced something came forward about it, it’s different,” the boy said. “But when guys see something like that, and they talk about it, they’re not really taken seriously, obviously, because we’re not direct victims of any of his crap. So we sound like we’re trying to, I don’t know, get him in trouble or something.”
In response to questions from the Globe about the boys’ concerns that they weren’t taken seriously, School Committee President Gregory Blasbalg said that was an issue that needed to be “carefully considered and addressed” by the school department.
“The Interim Superintendent and his team have made communication and listening to the concerns of students a top priority,” Blasbalg said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Blasbalg said he encourages the students to participate in the district’s training programs on Title IX issues and to find a teacher or staff member they trust to talk about their concerns. “Those teachers and staff will then follow the procedures that have been put in place to ensure that their information is reviewed and dealt with appropriately,” Blasbalg said.
In March, Superintendent Phil Auger and Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri stepped down after a damning investigative report singled them out for for turning a blind eye to allegations against coach Thomas.
Interim Superintendent Michael Waterman — who placed the Davisville teacher on leave in April after learning that a parent threatened to take out a restraining order over stalking allegations in 2019 — said Wednesday that he was working on making sure all students felt heard. He had immediately ordered an internal investigation into the Davisville teacher and another coach at the high school accused of inappropriate behavior with female students.
Waterman also introduced a new policy, “Professional Conduct with Students,” which details expectations for conduct and a reporting process for teachers and staff in North Kingstown schools. The School Committee adopted the policy on June 28.
Waterman said that the school district held training sessions for the students in June and reminded teachers and staff about the policy regarding professional conduct again when school started a few weeks ago. He said the district is also working with a consultant to assist with policy, process, and training.
“The safety and security of all our students is my top priority, and we will continue to talk to students about the issues that are of concern to them,” Waterman told the Globe in an email.
Jessica Schidlow, a staff attorney at Child USA, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works to protect children and prevent child abuse, said that enhancing the school district’s code of conduct is important, specifically regarding boundaries with students.
“The average educator will move to three different districts before anybody raises a flag and there is a formal investigation and they are removed,” she said.
“Schools say there are policies in place, but if your policies and code of conduct doesn’t include boundary violations, boundary crossing, and specific examples, such as communicating on social media and spending time with students, then we get into a gray area,” Schidlow said.
Sometimes people don’t report or investigate suspicious behavior because they are trying to cover something up, Schidlow said, “but usually, the problem is just ignorance.”
Spending time with a child alone or outside of school, or giving them special nicknames, are all “big red flags,” Schidlow said.
“When an educator is grooming a child, the process is also grooming colleagues as well,” she said. “Usually, we find down the line that people who abused children have won awards for excellence in teaching, and colleagues look up to them. Because they want people to trust them, they can do things that will otherwise set people off.”
Schidlow said she was heartened that the boys keeping the “pedo database” noticed the girls were uncomfortable.
“But the real problem is the onus should never be on the kids to speak up,” she said.
In this case, she said, the school failed the children.
This story has been updated to add information about the school system’s previous administrators.