Four Boston high school students on Tuesday called for Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to resign over her handling of revelations that student leaders were subjected to an inappropriate form of group therapy.
The students, speaking at a news conference at the Boston Public Schools’ Roxbury headquarters, said Acting Mayor Kim Janey should fire Cassellius if she doesn’t step down because she didn’t adequately respond to students’ complaints that adult leaders subjected students on the Boston Student Advisory Council to “Re-evaluation Counseling,” or RC.
“Brenda Cassellius played an active role in downplaying the abuse that occurred while continuing to stifle the voices of students,” said Khymani James, a former student representative on the Boston School Committee.
RC is both an unorthodox brand of group counseling and an international organization that promotes it.
An independent investigation into the counseling sessions commissioned by Cassellius this spring after James and other students on the council resigned in protest showed students felt the council’s codirector, Jenny Sazama, muffled their voices, emotionally manipulated them, and pushed them to attend RC sessions in the basement of her Jamaica Plain home.
Following a Globe investigation published last week, Cassellius ordered an expanded investigation and, pending its outcome, placed a school department employee who supervised the council on administrative leave. Cassellius had already ended the district’s partnership with Youth on Board, the nonprofit program that Sazama cofounded.
Cassellius also promised a top-to-bottom review of the school department’s outside partnerships and new protocols to regularly review programming provided by partners. Additionally, she said the department would hire new staff to provide more oversight and establish better risk-management practices.
“I will not tolerate any situation where any student feels they were mistreated or unheard,“ Cassellius, who has been superintendent for nearly two years, said last week. Her office declined to offer any additional comment on Tuesday.
At a Boston School Committee meeting last week, members praised Cassellius for the investigation and taking corrective actions.
Other education observers agreed that Cassellius did what she could to address the issues, once she learned of them.
“When it was brought to her attention, she took care of it,” said Edith Bazile, past president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. “It’s my hope, and I’ve heard her say, she will continue to talk to students and repair the breach, because it was a breach of trust.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, several community members — including Black Teachers Matter president Sharon Hinton; a District 4 City Council candidate, the Rev. Jacob Ureña; and at-large council candidate Domingos DaRosa — joined the students in calling for accountability.
Hinton said she didn’t feel as strongly as the students that Cassellius should step down, but she agreed with their contention that the district tried to hide the reality of students’ traumatic counseling experiences by releasing a vague, “lightweight, cover-your-behind” report.
“If she was part of the coverup,” Hinton said. “She should go.”
Re-Evaluation Counseling encourages participants to relate difficult experiences to another person or group and “discharge” their emotions by crying, screaming, or laughing. That emotional release is seen as key to psychological health.
But critics of RC say it exposes practitioners to other people’s trauma and reopens psychological wounds without offering closure or tools for coping. And, because RC is critical of conventional therapeutic interventions, such as psychotropic drugs, critics say RC can discourage people from getting treatment that works.
Cassellius’s administration, the students said, e-mailed the student council members’ families during the first independent investigation trying to minimize the extent to which RC was used in the peer counseling sessions, saying the students were given access to an “optional resource that uses very little of the theory and practice of Re-evaluation Counseling,” and the sessions were “not RC.”
But several students told the Globe the sessions were sometimes mandatory, and they often felt Sazama pressured them to attend. Sazama also encouraged them to attend regional RC retreats with adult RC practitioners from outside the district.
James said that e-mail was intended to discourage families from raising alarms to hold the district accountable. The district’s report on its investigation released last week “sugar-coated” many facts, James said, and placed little blame on the district.
He also said another student told him that during a meeting, Cassellius told students on the council not to speak to the news media.
They also called on District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate.
And the students asked the school department to fire Maria Estrada, the BPS employee who was placed on leave. She codirected the student advisory council with Sazama and knew about RC for years, records show.
The students said the district should have monitored Sazama, who grew up in the RC community and has long held leadership positions in the RC organization focused on engaging youth.
”Through the help of BPS and its neglect, she was able to groom younger generations” to join RC, said Ajanee Igharo, a junior at Boston Latin Academy. “Jenny Sazama was given the opportunity to abuse kids for almost two decades . . . Our students should mean more to the city.”
Naesoj Ware, a junior at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, said the district should have launched a thorough investigation right after the students’ first press conference, instead of waiting until after the Globe article appeared to take stronger action.
“This is just another example of BPS trying to conceal their wrongdoing and righting their wrongs only when they are called out,” Ware said.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.