A group of students who recently resigned from leadership roles at the Boston Public Schools accused an adult supervisor of psychological abuse during a news conference on Saturday, describing regular sessions during which teenagers were encouraged to share deeply personal information and cry.
Addressing reporters inside the Roxbury building that houses BPS headquarters, three students gave what they said were accounts of their experiences at gatherings known as “RC,” which they said stands for re-evaluation counseling, a controversial, peer-based therapy established in the 1950s by Carl Harvey Jackins.
The three students said they felt pressured to participate in RC to fulfill their duties as members of the Boston Student Advisory Council, a body of student leaders from city high schools, even though they feared that the information they shared wouldn’t be kept confidential. Two other students who didn’t attend RC, but said peers briefed them on it, said it was described to them as a “cult” directed by Jenny Sazama, a director and cofounder of the nonprofit Youth on Board.
The nonprofit partners with BPS to guide members of the Boston Student Advisory Council, who serve in paid positions with duties that include attending two meetings weekly and advising the School Committee in policy and decision-making. The students said they are paid hourly at minimum wage.
Khymani James, 17, who resigned Thursday from the council and as the Boston School Committee’s student representative, said Sazama “has been running a cult right under our noses for years now.”
James, a senior at Boston Latin Academy, said he didn’t attend RC because it conflicted with School Committee meetings, but heard about it from other students on the council.
In an e-mail after the press conference, Sazama said students have the opportunity to participate in optional gatherings held twice monthly “as a basis for providing emotional support to students through supportive listening.”
A permission slip signed by the student and a parent is required for participation, students are not compensated for attending, and “no student was ever compelled in any way to attend,” Sazama said.
“Student information is held in strict confidence,” she said.
The permission slip says the sessions are based “on over 25 years of Youth on Board’s experience in supporting young people in organizing,” the BPS said, and ensures that young people have the “emotional support they need to handle the personal and systemic issues they face.”
A BPS spokesman said in an e-mail that the district heard the students’ statements about Sazama and RC and is holding internal discussions about its next steps.
The district takes the students’ claims “seriously and is meeting with them to learn more about their concerns,” he said. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Alexandra Oliver-Davila, the leader of the School Committee, called James on Friday, the spokesman said, but they hadn’t heard back from him as of Saturday afternoon.
“James’ accusations are concerning, but we want to emphasize that we are meeting with students, families, and staff to understand more and learn if these are the shared feelings of other students on BSAC,” he said.
Justine Dessalines, who attends TechBoston Academy, said students were encouraged to cry at RC sessions. The gatherings, she said, felt like an invasion of privacy.
“I felt like you were constantly pushed to elaborate on emotions,” said Dessalines, the only student at the news conference who hasn’t resigned from the council.
Charlene Adames-Pimentel, a senior at Boston Latin Academy, said she considered sharing a personal experience during RC in December, but then declined.
“It was very scary in a way to think that if I were to share something, it wouldn’t stay within this space,” said Adames-Pimentel, who resigned from the council. “I’m just very fortunate to have not shared as much. You can’t trust strangers.”
Danyael Morales, 14, who attends Boston Latin Academy and resigned from the council, said the pressure to attend the RC sessions was also financial because students were compensated for attending. In her e-mail, Sazama said that was not the case.
The students told reporters that 12 council members have resigned and more are contemplating it. The BPS statement said officials were aware of six resignations from the council, which is made up of 49 students.
Naesoj Ware, a student at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, said BPS administrators gave lip service to council members.
“I need it to be known that students are there as a checkbox so that BPS and the district can say that they hear student thinking and that they bring them there for implementation of different policies when that is simply not the case,” said Ware, who resigned from the council.
Another student, Ajanee Igharo, said the council wasn’t free to question BPS leaders who met with them.
“It wasn’t a space for us to hold anyone accountable,” said Igharo, who also resigned.
There are divisions between the students who recently resigned from the council and those who remain.
Sam Draisen, a senior at Boston Latin Academy and council member, said about 18 of his colleagues plan to stay in their positions and push for reform, but they support ending RC and want Sazama to resign.
“We want to stay in the organization and rebuild,” he said. “We don’t think [reform] will happen by leaving BSAC and burning it to the ground.”
Stanley Aneke, 20, a BPS graduate who served on the council and now leads one of its subcommittees as an alumni staff member, said in an e-mail that the students who spoke at the news conference don’t represent the views of the entire organization. Some council members, he said, are afraid to speak out because they disagree with the students who recently resigned.
“I don’t condone the radical approach these students are taking to completely bring down such ... amazing programs,” said Aneke, who now studies biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Aneke, however, shared concerns about RC, saying the sessions were “very personal and intense.”
“I definitely feel like it should end,” he said. “I would say recently RC has been more of a tactic used to get closer with the students during a time of stress. This pandemic has been extremely draining, and tiresome.”