A day after four Boston high school students called on prosecutors to investigate unlicensed group therapy sessions that occurred for years in the Jamaica Plain basement of an outside contractor, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said Wednesday that her office is looking forward to speaking with students about their experiences.
“I was disturbed to hear of the alleged emotional abuse that BPS students endured while participating in unlicensed Re-evaluation Counseling. Systems charged with the care of our children must vigilantly vet any service providers,” Rollins said Wednesday in a statement released by her office.
“Licensed professionals should be providing mental health services for our students. They deserve as much,” the statement said. “We look forward to speaking with these courageous students to learn more about where these counseling sessions occurred and what transpired.”
On Tuesday, the four students held a news conference at the Boston Public Schools’ headquarters where they called for Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to resign over her handling of revelations that student leaders with the Boston Student Advisory Council were exposed to an unorthodox form of group therapy known as Re-evaluation Counseling, or RC. The students also asked for investigations by Rollins and state Attorney General Maura Healey.
In a statement released last Thursday, Healey said she supported BPS’ decision to end its 20-year relationship with Youth on Board, the nonprofit program led by Jenny Sazama, who organized RC sessions for the council.
Khymani James, who is among the students pressing for Cassellius’s resignation, said Wednesday that he welcomed Rollins’s remarks.
“It’s nice to hear that the DA is looking into this disturbing situation,” said James, a former student representative on the Boston School Committee. James has said he didn’t attend RC but said he was advocating for students who did.
An independent investigation into the counseling sessions commissioned by Cassellius in March after six students on the council resigned in protest showed students felt that Sazama muffled their voices, emotionally manipulated them, and pushed them to attend RC sessions in the basement of her Jamaica Plain home. Sazama didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
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. She also announced the school system would review all outside partnerships and establish new protocols for overseeing programming provided by those partners.
On Wednesday, BPS responded to an inquiry about Rollins’s remarks by resending Cassellius’s statement from last week, which also said the district continues to offer students access to trained and licensed counseling staff.
The Globe report found the school district had made little effort to oversee Youth on Board’s work with the council until the resignations in March. 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.
Rollins called for such oversight in her statement.
“Obtaining regular feedback — from the providers and the students who are in receipt of their services — should be required, as the safety and emotional well-being of our students is the highest priority,” she said Wednesday.
Last week, Rollins said she had initiated discussions with her leadership team about the incidents described in the Globe story, but noted that one confrontation occurred in Newton, outside her jurisdiction.
That incident involved a former student, Keondre McClay. McClay, who is Black, told the Globe that when he was a high school sophomore he fled from a session during an overnight RC retreat in Newton after white adults asked him to wrestle out his emotions on a gym mat with them, saying it would help him purge his trauma from experiencing racism. Sazama and other retreat participants followed him back to his room, said McClay, now 21, and hugged him on his bed as they urged him to return group counseling.
“I was, for lack of a better word, assaulted,” McClay told the Globe.
On Wednesday, a Newton police spokesman said the department hasn’t received a report about the incident involving McClay and urged anyone who wished to share information to contact officers.
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.