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Boston school system launches outside investigation into allegations of student emotional manipulation

Khymani James, the Boston School Committee student representative who resigned last week, said he was “pleased to hear that BPS is taking the necessary steps forward and hope that it won’t stop there.”
Khymani James, the Boston School Committee student representative who resigned last week, said he was “pleased to hear that BPS is taking the necessary steps forward and hope that it won’t stop there.”Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The Boston public school system announced Monday evening that it is suspending its relationship with a nonprofit youth advocacy organization whose unusual peer counseling sessions came to light when a student member of the school committee abruptly quit last week.

The district said it will launch an outside investigation into student allegations that the group, Youth on Board, emotionally manipulated them.

The group’s peer-to-peer counseling sessions had become a key component of the Boston Student Advisory Council, a districtwide student government organization run jointly by the the school system and Youth on Board. The sessions, known as “Re-evaluation Counseling,” delved deeply into childhood trauma and sharing intense emotions with the group, students said.

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The allegations have stunned educators, school advocates, and the nonprofit world across Boston since they surfaced publicly last week. Youth on Board and its founder Jenny Sazama has been running the student government group for years, and the student group was very active on a number of key issues, from lobbying the state Legislature for school funding and developing an app that lets students know about their rights.

“The partnership with Youth on Board and work with all YOB staff involvement is on hold pending an outside investigation,” the school system said in a statement.

Several students have quit the student advisory group in recent days in objection to the counseling sessions; they have also accused Sazama of stifling their voices by heavily editing their public statements and setting the group’s policy agenda for them. They said Sazama and other staff members pressured students to participate in the counseling sessions, which Sazama denies.

Other students who have stuck with the advisory council have also raised concerns about the counseling sessions, but say they hope to reform the group from the inside.

Students have described the sessions as extremely emotional. Overseen by Sazama and young adult leaders at the nonprofit, the teenagers were encouraged to share personal information and cry, students said at a news conference last weekend. Some regretted the information they shared and worried about whether it would be kept confidential, students said. The sessions took place multiple times a month.

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Khymani James, the Boston School Committee student representative who resigned last week, said he was “pleased to hear that BPS is taking the necessary steps forward and hope that it won’t stop there.”

“BPS, along with everyone else, must understand that this was never just about YOB’s partnership and the (Re-evaluation Counseling) cult,” said James, a Boston Latin Academy senior who also was a member of the student advisory council but resigned from that group too. “This is also about student voice being stifled, and that must end when adults are willing to relinquish nearly all of their power to young people and entrust them with it.”

Sazama has stressed in statements to the media that the counseling sessions were voluntary and were intended to provide “emotional support to students through supportive listening.” Students were never compelled to attend or paid for it, she said.

“The class was not a Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling class and participants were not part of RC,” she has said in a previous statement. “For the past year, the program has been on Zoom, not in person. The purpose of Wellness Wednesdays is peer support among students. There is no other purpose, and the staff of BSAC and Youth on Board regret if there was any other impact.”

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The Boston Public Schools has known about the counseling sessions for years. It included information about them on an application that parents must sign in order for their children to participate and informed them it was based on Re-evaluation Counseling. The school system downplayed the peer counseling sessions Monday night.

“The Peer Support Group is an optional resource that has been made available to BSAC students through the Youth on Board partnership since around 2006,” the statement said. “While the Peer Support Group model is loosely based in the theory and practice of Re-Evaluation Counseling (RC), it is not RC. The Peer Support Group is rooted in restorative justice and social emotional learning practices. In its basic form, the practice simply consists of two people taking turns listening to each other and is not clinical counseling.”

Sam Draisen, a Boston Latin Academy student who remains on the advisory council, said school district officials informed students of their actions Monday night.

“It is good that the district is suspending that partnership, but that cannot be the final step,” he said. “Now we need to focus on reform and find a new fiscal partner to provide the services that the district can’t handle. Many good adult staff members are employed by YOB, and they are very important and should still be a part of BSAC.”

Charlene Adames-Pimentel, a Boston Latin Academy senior who was among several students who raised concerns last week about the counseling sessions, said she’s glad the school system has ended the practice and suspended its relationship with the nonprofit. But she wonders why school officials didn’t act sooner.

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“I’d like for them to apply this quick energy to other structures and situations” that are problematic within the district, she said. “This is all part of this racist, adultist structure that BPS has played a part in.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.