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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Boston schools superintendent Cassellius expands investigation into unlicensed counseling sessions

"I will not tolerate any situation where any student feels they were mistreated or unheard," Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said.
"I will not tolerate any situation where any student feels they were mistreated or unheard," Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

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The Boston Public Schools system announced Thursday that it is broadening the investigation into an outside contractor’s use of an unorthodox brand of group therapy with a prestigious group of student leaders, citing “deeply painful stories” detailed this week by the Globe.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius met Thursday evening with members of the Boston Student Advisory Council, the student government group exposed to the therapy. She also said she had placed the BPS employee who codirected the student organization on administrative leave.

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“I was saddened and angered reading the deeply painful stories shared by current and former students in the press this morning. I will not tolerate any situation where any student feels they were mistreated or unheard,” Cassellius said in a statement.

The statement included a series of steps meant to tighten oversight of programming provided by outside partners of the district.

“The issues raised by students, the investigation conducted by BPS, and the stories recounted in the media clearly show that we need to look even deeper to fully understand the size and scope of the concerns expressed by members of the Boston Student Advisory Council,” Cassellius said.

Separately, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she has initiated discussions with her leadership team about the incidents described in the Globe story.

“We are going to look into anything that potentially happened in Suffolk County,” Rollins said Thursday during an unrelated news conference.

On Thursday, the Globe reported that the district’s contractor Youth on Board, and its leader, Jenny Sazama, used Re-Evaluation Counseling with the advisory council, encouraging them to share personal information in a group, and to “discharge” their emotions by crying, yelling, or screaming, with no professional follow-up. Twice-monthly “RC” sessions took place in the basement of Sazama’s home in Jamaica Plain, but some of the teens also participated in regional RC gatherings with adult strangers.

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Sazama has been a practitioner of Re-Evaluation Counseling since her youth and a longtime leader in the international RC organization. She has no credentials to provide mental health care.

Sazama subjected leaders of the student advisory council, which advises the superintendent and school committee on education policy, to RC for at least 15 years. The sessions came to an end only after six BSAC members abruptly resigned in March and accused Sazama at a news conference of emotionally manipulating students and recruiting students into her RCcult.”

One former student, Keondre McClay, who is Black, told the Globe that when he was a sophomore he fled from a session during an overnight RC retreat in Newton after white adults asked him to wrestle out his emotions with them, saying it would help him purge his trauma from experiencing racism. Sazama and other retreat participants followed him to his room, said McClay, now 21, and hugged him on his bed as they urged him to return group “counseling.”

Sazama did not respond to a request for comment, but she previously defended her handling of the counseling sessions, saying that no student was ever compelled to attend, and that her nonprofit’s work with Boston students had been nationally recognized.

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In a report released by the school department Monday, an independent investigator wrote that students described the RC sessions as “weird, uncomfortable, and cult-like.” In releasing the report, Cassellius also announced she was ending the district’s relationship with Youth on Board. Sazama cofounded Youth on Board, but left the organization this year after students spoke out against her leadership.

Some found the district’s initial investigation inadequate, and said the system didn’t do enough to reach out to affected students.

“Everyone makes mistakes but this is a mistake that ended up almost destroying lives,” said Xyra Mercer, 17, a junior at the Henderson Inclusion School and BSAC’s representative to the Boston School Committee. “It cost some of them their mental sanity, it cost them emotional safety, it cost a lot that should’ve never been taken away from students.”

Cassellius said a new independent investigator would interview a larger number of students, families, alumni, and staff. She also announced that Maria Estrada, a BPS employee who oversees the council, has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Sazama and Estrada didn’t respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Cassellius’s statement also outlined plans to create new “risk management and compliance oversight protocols” and review all the district’s partnerships. And she said the district would continue offering students licensed counseling.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, said the group is pleased the district appeared to be taking action. “We need to make sure students who were in these sessions get the licensed mental health support they need,” she said.

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Speaking at an unrelated news conference before Cassellius’s announcement, Acting Mayor Kim Janey thanked her for opening the initial investigation and putting an end to unlicensed counseling.

“We obviously want to make sure that our young people feel safe, that they are being supported, and that any counseling happens by licensed professionals,” said Janey.

Boston City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Andrea Campbell, Annissa Essaibi George, Julia Mejia, and Michelle Wu also expressed concerns about the students’ experiences with RC.

In a statement, Attorney General Maura Healey called the Globe’s report “disturbing” and expressed support for BPS’s decision to cut ties with Youth on Board.

“It’s critical, for the health and safety of our students, that those providing mental health supports in our public schools are properly vetted and licensed,” she said.

Youth on Board, however, remains popular with some involved with the council. On Wednesday, a BPS student, a parent, and two graduates who work for Youth on Board told the School Committee that they oppose Cassellius’s decision to cut ties with the organization.

“Ruining the partnership looks good for the public, as it seems to be getting rid of the core problem but, in reality, we have been isolated without the support we needed from the junior staff,” said Tiffany Luo, 17, a junior at Boston Latin School. “We’ve been ripped away from what many of us students considered older siblings and mentors.”

Harneen Chernow, a parent of a council member and a former state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member, grew emotional as she testified before the School Committee about what the students experienced.

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“Ultimately BPS needs to be held accountable for this travesty,” Chernow said. “I don’t have an answer for what that looks like, or how you can make these young people whole. . . . There is a lot of pain, and it is far from over.”



Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. 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.