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Boston schools superintendent announces changes after investigation finds students were pressured into unlicensed counseling

Khymani James spoke at a press conference on March 6. He had resigned from the Boston School Committee and the Boston Student Advisory Council, along with other students.
Khymani James spoke at a press conference on March 6. He had resigned from the Boston School Committee and the Boston Student Advisory Council, along with other students.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

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Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Monday she has ended the district’s relationship with a nonprofit program that ran a prestigious student advisory group for two decades, following an independent investigation that showed students felt the director stifled their voices, emotionally manipulated them, and pushed them to attend inappropriate group counseling sessions.

Cassellius said the system is ending its relationship with a group called Youth On Board, whose founder had practiced an unorthodox type of group therapy called Re-evaluation Counseling, or “RC,” which students described as a cult. RC, which is both a type of group counseling and an international organization that practices and promotes it, encourages people to relate difficult experiences and release emotions by crying, screaming, or laughing.

The 10-page report, released Monday, confirmed many of the allegations made during a news conference in March by six students, including the then-student representative of the Boston School Committee, who resigned in protest from the Boston Student Advisory Council. The students said that Jenny Sazama, the adult co-director of the council, censored their policy positions and pressured them into attending Re-evaluation Counseling.

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The investigator, Alan Oliff, a former Weston schools superintendent now working for private Jewish schools, took no position on RC’s therapeutic techniques and did not explore the “cult” allegation, but his report said students described RC in interviews as “weird, uncomfortable, cult-like.”

And its implementation, he wrote, “without any qualified counseling personnel and no apparent oversight has been a problem.”

Following the report, which recommended that any counseling program be thoroughly vetted and run by qualified counselors, Cassellius nixed RC and said from now on Boston’s school system would only use licensed psychologists and social workers to provide mental health services.

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“I just am very troubled by these findings,” Cassellius told the Globe. “Students felt uncomfortable, they felt they were manipulated and were paid to participate — that’s what’s troubling to me, regardless of the type of program, that’s inappropriate. That’s why we dealt with this swiftly.”

The head of the national RC organization, Tim Jackins, has denied that the organization is at all cult-like.

Cassellius said she would also implement yearly evaluations and student surveys to monitor the student advisory council, switching its organizational structure to fall under a newly created chief of student support. She said her staff was collaborating with students to rewrite the council’s bylaws for a full restructuring. The council advises the superintendent and School Committee on education policies.

Khymani James, the School Committee member who resigned in protest over the counseling sessions, did not personally attend the sessions but said he spoke out on behalf of students who did. He said Monday he was pleased the investigation had helped uncover the truth of the matter.

“What happened to people’s children was absolutely unacceptable and must unequivocally be condemned by BPS,” he said.

Both Cassellius and her top chief overseeing the program, Monica Roberts, said they didn’t know that the RC sessions took place in Sazama’s home, which Cassellius said is not typically permitted. (During the pandemic they took place virtually.)

Cassellius and Roberts also said they weren’t aware of the extent that RC was used with the students or that students felt uncomfortable in the RC sessions.

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That surprised council member Tiffany Luo, 17, a junior at Boston Latin School, who said the district should have kept a closer eye on what Sazama was doing with students.

“They should have known because RC is a thing that’s been going on for many years,” Luo said, noting that students discussed in presentations with district officials how RC helped lay a foundation for some projects. “It’s not like other BPS people didn’t know about it.’'

Sazama, in a statement, said the partnership of Youth on Board with Boston Public Schools was “highly successful and nationally recognized for more than two decades.”

“It’s unfortunate to see it come to an end under these circumstances,” Sazama said in a statement, adding that she hopes Boston students continue to have a voice in how their schools are governed. “I have spent my career fighting alongside them for their right to be heard.”

Youth on Board is a program of Youth Build USA. Monday, Youth Build USA issued a statement, saying it cooperated with the investigation and that it understands the school system’s decision to end the partnership. It said Youth on Board operated separately from Youth Build USA.

The school district employee who co-directed the program with Sazama, Maria Estrada, previously attended RC, but reported that she hadn’t in several years because she assumed Sazama was managing the sessions responsibly, the report said.

Estrada no longer oversees the council, though she is still employed by the district pending an internal investigation, Cassellius said. Estrada didn’t return a message seeking comment.

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All the students and junior staffers Oliff interviewed raised concerns about Sazama’s leadership and RC, which Sazama hassled students to participate in, Oliff wrote.

He noted that students reported Sazama cajoled them to attend the sessions through text messages at all hours of the night, leading some to turn their phones off, and she asked other people to pressure a student to attend RC too. The program was optional in recent years but students often felt they had to attend.

She would also often bring up confidential details they’d shared later, sometimes in front of others, students told Oliff.

“[I]t was common for Jenny to ask a student to do additional work and use personal issues they had raised as reminders about how this would be a good thing for them given their challenges,” Oliff wrote, citing students’ statements in which they said Sazama’s reminders were “incessant and uncomfortable.”

Prior to the investigation, school district officials claimed the sessions weren’t really RC but a modified version. But the report makes clear that it was “always” called RC by Sazama, staffers, and students, and was identified as “Peer Counseling/RC” on the council’s agenda.

Students told Oliff parents did not grant their permission for participation in RC regularly over the years, and it was only recently added to the overall council permission slip, at the very end.

“Clearly it is not identified as an important area to review, given its location on the slip,” the author noted.

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The report also raised concerns about Sazama’s handling of finances. Multiple people told the investigator they were concerned about Sazama’s spending on “gifts, personal purchases, and regular use of a ‘petty cash’ fund,” according to the report. Oliff recommended the district and Youth on Board review any funds it provided to Sazama. Roberts said the district only gave Youth on Board a tiny fraction of its revenue — less than $10,000 this year, according to the district.

The report, which misspelled Sazama’s name as “Szama,” acknowledged some limitations. The investigator interviewed 23 people, including students, junior staff, alumni, parents, and district employees, but he said he only had one hour for each, so it was “not possible” to hear all the information that “interviewees wanted to share.”

Cassellius vowed to prioritize students’ voices going forward. James, the former student representative on the School Committee, said the council needs to be fully reconfigured to “prevent something like this from happening again.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.