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As a Boston high school sophomore, Keondre McClay said he was pressured by the head of a district-sponsored youth advocacy program to attend an overnight retreat in Newton, where white adults asked the Black teenager to wrestle out his emotions on a gym mat with them. They said it would help him purge his trauma from experiencing racism.
McClay fled to his room. Jenny Sazama, the program leader, and other retreat participants chased after him. For more than an hour, he recalled recently, they hugged him on his bed and entreated him to return to the group “counseling” session while he hid under the covers screaming, “Please leave me alone!”
When they eventually left, he locked the door, but someone got the facilities manager to unlock it. McClay called someone to help him get home at midnight.
“I was, for lack of a better word, assaulted,” said McClay, now 21, a former student representative to the Boston School Committee.
The retreat was part of an unorthodox brand of group therapy Sazama introduced to the Boston Student Advisory Council, a prestigious student government group that advises the superintendent and School Committee on education policy. In a report released by the school department Monday, an independent investigator wrote that students described the “Re-Evaluation Counseling” sessions as “weird, uncomfortable, and cult-like.” But the report barely scratched the surface of students’ experiences.
In “RC,” students were encouraged to share intensely personal information in a group, and to cry, yell, or scream, with no professional follow-up. Twice-monthly sessions took place in the basement of Sazama’s home in Jamaica Plain, but the teens also participated in RC gatherings, like the one McClay attended, with adult strangers.
The sessions continued for at least 15 years, with little oversight by the Boston Public Schools, which hired Sazama as an outside contractor to run the council. Sazama, who holds no credentials to provide mental health care, is a lifelong devotee of RC and a leader in the international organization that promotes it.
RC has crept into progressive circles here and around the country. Its founder briefly collaborated with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, and its core philosophy, which bears some similarities to Hubbard’s Dianetics, prescribes regularly relating painful memories to a peer counselor or group and releasing strong feelings by crying, shaking, or screaming as the best salve for psychological wounds.
More than a dozen current and former student advisory council members and staffers interviewed by the Globe described the sessions as inappropriate and disturbing. A number said Sazama actively discouraged them from seeking more traditional forms of professional mental health care, including psychiatric medication, which RC leaders regard with suspicion.
“There is no such thing as a psychological ‘disorder,’” Sazama wrote in 2006, in one of her voluminous postings to the RC website, echoing the group’s position. “The ‘disorders’ are made-up names that describe distresses, and their purpose is to sell drugs for profit.”
The students said Sazama manipulated them, using her knowledge of their personal issues to get them to attend meetings and, at times, regional RC gatherings with adults from outside the school district, without fully informing their parents. McClay said Sazama even occasionally paid his cellphone bill to get him to attend these retreats.
Students said Sazama often blurred boundaries by sharing her own struggles to a degree that made some students uneasy. And they described the counseling sessions as traumatic.
“How could any wellness be occurring if people are constantly crying and we’re constantly talking about trauma?” said Charlene Adames-Pimentel, a senior at Boston Latin Academy.
‘“How could any wellness be occurring if people are constantly crying and we’re constantly talking abut trauma?”’
Charlene Adames-Pimentel, a senior at Boston Latin Academy
Through the years, some council members who participated in RC found it a positive experience, a chance to vent and bond with Sazama and other students in a school district where guidance counselors and psychologists are in short supply.
But many others chafed. For leaders of the student advisory council, participation was mandatory at times, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe, but even when it became voluntary, students said, they felt Sazama leaned on them to attend. They described an uncomfortable power dynamic: Some students were paid up to 10 hours a week for their youth advocacy work, and some felt they needed to attend RC to accumulate enough hours to get their full paycheck. Sazama has denied students were paid for attending RC.
At least one staffer raised concerns about RC a decade ago to Sazama and her co-director Maria Estrada, a BPS employee, but the counseling continued much as before.
That changed in March, when six students, including the group’s representative on the Boston School Committee, Khymani James, abruptly resigned and, in an explosive news conference, called the counseling sessions emotional abuse and accused Sazama of recruiting students into her RC “cult.” (James didn’t attend RC but said he was advocating for students who did.)
RELATED: Adult supervisor for BPS student group accused at news conference of psychological abuse
Several past superintendents and School Committee members said they were stunned to hear the students’ criticism of Sazama, who they considered a caring champion of young people, and said they had never heard of RC.
Sazama declined to comment for this story, but she previously defended her handling of the counseling sessions, saying that “no student was ever compelled in any way to attend.” In a statement Monday, Sazama said her nonprofit’s work with Boston students had been nationally recognized for two decades.
“It’s unfortunate to see it come to an end under these circumstances,” her statement said. “I hope that the students of Boston will continue to have a voice in how the schools are governed.”
In response to the students’ allegations this spring, Boston Public Schools commissioned an outside investigation. After the investigator’s report was released Monday, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius severed ties with the youth advocacy program Sazama had been running, Youth on Board, part of the nonprofit YouthBuild USA. Cassellius said she was “very troubled” by the report’s findings and said the school department, going forward, would use only licensed providers for mental health services.
RELATED: Boston schools superintendent announces changes after investigation finds students were pressured into unlicensed counseling
The school department, however, appears to have made little effort to oversee the program until now. It had no written contract with Youth on Board and did not direct any of its licensed mental health counselors to monitor the counseling sessions. School officials said they relied on student surveys to evaluate the program, but recent surveys didn’t ask students about it.
Estrada, the BPS employee overseeing the student advisory council, also briefly worked for Sazama at Youth on Board, according to the nonprofit, raising questions about whether she was well positioned to protect students. Estrada could not be reached for comment.
Cassellius and her top chief overseeing the program, Monica Roberts, said Monday they weren’t previously aware of the extent RC was used in the peer counseling sessions.
But e-mails obtained by the Globe show previous district leaders were aware of the RC program in 2011. Estrada and her then-boss, assistant superintendent Michele Brooks, repeatedly e-mailed about RC and discussed Brooks attending a counseling session; it’s unclear whether she did. Brooks couldn’t be reached for comment.
After the controversy erupted this spring, the school department tried downplaying students’ concerns, saying the counseling sessions were only “loosely based” on RC, or “not RC.” Yet the district asked parents to sign permission slips for counseling “based in the theory and practice of Re-Evaluation Counseling,” with a link to the RC website. The district said no students previously complained about RC.
Sazama has left Youth on Board, according to YouthBuild USA, which conducted its own investigation.
McClay now serves as Youth on Board’s external relations manager; he said he kept working for Sazama despite his painful experiences on the council because of his commitment to the students and their work. But he said he never attended RC again.
The Boston Public Schools hired Youth on Board two decades ago to help revitalize the student advisory council, whose members, from high schools across Boston, advise the School Committee, City Council, and the mayor on education policy.
Under Sazama’s leadership, the council became a powerful force with a long trail of press coverage, racking up policy victories on homework loads, school tardiness, and teacher evaluations, and securing public transit passes for all high schoolers.
But the group’s RC sessions were rarely, if ever, publicly discussed.
RC has taken root in Boston and nationwide among pockets of progressive activists, who view it as a vehicle for social change. Adherents see the cathartic release of emotion, or “discharge,” as a remedy for healing both personal distress and societal trauma. If enough people and organizations discharged regularly, the thinking goes, the world could end oppression and environmental destruction. That’s why its members often try to recruit others. It’s also why RC theory regards psychiatric drugs as toxic — they interfere with emotional release.
But RC’s emphasis on displaying emotions before an audience, which psychology researchers say increases susceptibility to manipulation, has led critics to deride it as cult-like.
The group also has a troubled history; in the 1980s, multiple women accused RC founder Harvey Jackins of sexually exploiting them during counseling sessions, according to published news reports and former RC members. (Jackins denied the sexual misconduct allegations at the time.) It also used to counsel against homosexuality, former members said.
RC’s critics say it has no place in public schools and could harm students who feel pressured to participate or burdened by peers’ psychological suffering. Steven Hassan, a Newton-based licensed mental health counselor and cult expert, considers RC a splinter group of Dianetics and a cult.
“This is not a healthy group,” said Hassan, who has counseled ex-RC members. “It is not something any student or school system should be involved with.”
Tim Jackins, the founder’s son and longtime head of RC, calls the cult allegation “a cheap jab to get people scared.” He said the organization has helped tens of thousands of people, including youths, lead better lives.
“It’s the idea of getting freer and freer from the restrictions that getting hurt has put on you,” he said.
Sazama, who grew up in the RC community, met Harvey Jackins when she was about 12 years old, and developed a close bond with him, according to her statements on RC’s website.
Since she was young, Sazama has held leadership roles in the RC organization centered on youth engagement; her e-mail signature read “ILRP for allies to young people,” short for “international liberation reference person.”
Her decades of work with RC are extensively documented on the group’s website. It’s not clear if Boston school officials ever read her writings or researched RC, but one of Sazama’s former employers, Teen Empowerment in the South End, grew uncomfortable with Sazama doing RC with youth in the mid-1990s. She left after a year.
“Her focus was on RC, and our focus was different,” said Stanley Pollack, executive director of Teen Empowerment.
Pollack said Sazama was upfront about her RC work there. But elsewhere she was more discreet. In the early 1990s, she introduced what the RC website calls “naturalized RC” to teenagers in a low-income housing development in the South End — conducting group therapy sessions without calling it RC, she wrote.
In this way, RC has quietly embedded itself in universities and organizations, including groups devoted to progressive Judaism, Black women’s health, and national coalition-building, said Beryl Satter, a Rutgers University history professor who has researched RC.
“It’s a chameleon,” Satter said. Proponents, she said, “see it as . . . ‘Instead of facing the resistance we would if we were straightforward, let’s just get in there and do it, and then they’ll love it.’”
In introducing RC, several students and former staffers said, Sazama would explain that they’d all been conditioned from infancy to suppress their emotions: When they cried as babies, their parents stuck pacifiers and bottles in their mouths. RC was a way of letting go of those harmful societal pressures, Sazama would say.
She would open a typical session by inviting students to respond in a group setting to a general question or topic, such as addiction. Next they’d pair up, take turns listening to one another speak for about five minutes each, and then share with the group. Sazama would often instruct students, as they became upset, to cry, yell, scream into a pillow, punch a pillow, laugh, or shake.
“Crying was something she really wanted to get out of us,” said Wellington Matos, a junior at Fenway High School.
Often, Sazama asked probing questions or demonstrated a counseling session with a student. She also shared and “discharged” about her own challenges, said Justine Dessalines, a junior at TechBoston Academy.
Some former BSAC members embraced it. Amel Ahmed, who graduated from Monument High School in 2010, said the peer counseling helped resolve conflicts among members. And it helped them cope with frustration and anger after public officials refused to change policies the students considered racist, such as forcing students to go through metal detectors — the epitome, students felt, of treating Black and Latino students like prisoners.
“It was a life-changing experience for me to be in BSAC and be introduced to peer counseling, learning how to express myself,” said Ahmed, who serves on Youth on Board’s advisory board. “I understand that not everyone is comfortable sharing their feelings.”
Dan Chu, a BSAC member from 2009 to 2013 and a former student representative on the School Committee, said he was initially skeptical of RC but eventually found it helpful, especially in coping with his disappointment in not getting into his top college choices. And, Chu said, Sazama went out of her way to help students.
But other students said they went to the sessions reluctantly and felt Sazama pressured students to attend by pointing to stressors she knew they were experiencing as a reason they should “discharge.”
Sazama often warned that mental health professionals and psychiatric drug manufacturers prioritized profits over care, students said, and shared frightening anecdotes.
“I was scared I was going to be put in a mental health facility, and they were going to inject me with drugs,” said Tiffany Luo, 17, a Boston Latin School junior, who hesitated to try therapy because of Sazama’s stories.
One woman, now in her late 20s, said at Sazama’s urging, she attended regional RC weekend retreats, where she shared her secrets with adults she didn’t know, something she now regrets.
“I think about the sessions and I feel gross,” she said.
She recalled getting throbbing migraines while listening to people’s traumas. But Sazama and other RC members assured her that the headaches were a good sign, and that she shouldn’t take any over-the-counter pain medication: Her body was “discharging” her trauma.
“In retrospect, I should have seen a licensed therapist,” she said. She didn’t think to seek one out for her anxiety and depression: Sazama said she just needed more RC sessions.
The racial dynamics of the RC retreats were also troubling to some students.
Luo, a Chinese immigrant, and Matos, who is Black and Latino, said Sazama pressed them in January to attend a statewide RC event on Zoom supposedly for young people of color, only to find a sea of white faces. Someone prompted Luo to speak before she felt comfortable. Matos quickly clicked out of the meeting, fearing he’d be next.
“It felt like I’m a zoo animal presented as a show to them, because I’m being forced to talk about my experience with racism, rather than me wanting to myself,” Luo said.
A decade ago, a 23-year-old staffer, Margaret Fiori, urged Sazama and the BPS co-director, Estrada, to rethink RC after a session in which Sazama prodded a reluctant girl to describe to the group how she was coping with a sexual assault.
“I think that you two should not pressure people to talk because of the power-structure,” Fiori wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “Regardless of how close staff and [students] may feel to you, you are still our employers.”
Estrada defended requiring students to attend RC, according to an e-mail obtained by the Globe, saying, “The benefits outweighs [sic] the concerns most have about it.”
But Sazama agreed staff no longer had to attend, and shortly after, it became optional for students.
Chu said Sazama was OK with his decision to stop attending RC. But other students felt Sazama goaded them in cajoling texts or in conversation.
And financial pressure loomed, some students said. Danyael Morales, a ninth grader at Boston Latin Academy this year, felt he needed to attend RC to log six hours weekly working on council activities for his paid internship with BPS’s equity office.
Morales’s mother worried what this taught students about workplace boundaries.
“I don’t have to share anything like that [with] my supervisor about my feelings,” Angelina Morales said. “I do my job and I call it a day.”
Jeff Foulkes, a former staffer, now 36, said he wishes the staff had worked harder to sound alarms a decade ago.
“Now that I have a lot more experience in the field, and have run similar programs, it feels wildly more inappropriate than I even understood at the time,” he said. “It’s incredibly irresponsible.”
This spring, amid a unique convergence of tensions, students decided they’d had enough.
They had been meeting on Zoom throughout the pandemic, holding RC sessions online. A dozen or so new students had joined; many didn’t know one another and found RC absurd.
“Why am I yelling into a pillow in front of a screen?” said Adames-Pimentel. “That’s so weird — I don’t even turn my camera on for class.”
Meanwhile, the students were fired up to fight racial injustices following George Floyd’s murder and ensuing protests. They wanted to hold district leaders accountable for what they felt were inadequate efforts to help Black and brown students.
RELATED: Read more from The Great Divide, the Globe’s team covering race, class, and opportunity in our schools.
Their revolutionary mindset collided with Sazama’s and Estrada’s more diplomatic approach to advocacy. Increasingly frustrated by what they saw as the adults’ efforts to soften students’ criticism of district leaders, the students balked.
The council president, Katio Barbosa, a senior at Jeremiah Burke High School, clashed with Sazama over his request to dedicate the council’s March 4 meeting to discussing a school mental health program.
“Katio, I didn’t sleep last night again and I woke up wondering if I should say this to you,” Sazama replied in a text. “But we were both crying last night and that happens regularly and it’s not your fault or anyone’s fault but there is so much pressure on us you can’t even imagine.”
Her program faced financial woes and two people in her life had tried to kill themselves, she added.
Barbosa replied, “The fact that you felt comfortable enough to push all of that on me to shut me down made me feel disrespected.”
After a tumultuous, student-only Zoom meeting where council members swapped stories about RC and Sazama, about a half-dozen students decided to resign and air their grievances publicly.
Students say they hope, as they rebuild the council, the program will continue to include emotional support. They could use help, they said, processing the trauma in their lives and the bigotry they encounter in their activism. But they want professional therapists.
“RC was a really important outlet for a lot of people — that’s what kept a lot of us attached to it even though there was a lot of weird stuff about it,” Matos said. “A therapeutic place in general is something we want, but RC’s what we had.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com. James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.