For months, many students weren’t ready to share their experiences in a controversial form of group therapy that was part of their prestigious student council.
But on Monday a group of eight students held a news conference detailing abuse they said they suffered in those sessions, which they called a required part of the Boston Student Advisory Council that they and their parents didn’t always fully consent to participate in. They demanded Boston Public Schools be held accountable.
“Even saying this out loud today makes my skin crawl,” said Josiehanna Colon, a junior at New Mission High School, as she recalled attending the “Re-evaluation Counseling” sessions in the Jamaica Plain basement of Jenny Sazama, a nonprofit program cofounder hired by Boston Public Schools to help run the council.
Re-Evaluation Counseling, or RC, is both an unorthodox brand of group counseling and an international organization that promotes it. RC 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.
Critics call the group cultlike and warn its techniques can increase people’s susceptibility to manipulation.
On Monday, RC released its first written statement to the Globe. It didn’t directly address Boston students’ allegations, though it responded to the “falsehood” that it’s cultlike, saying it is low-cost and strengthens participants’ relationships with their families.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Joan Karp, a local RC leader and senior researcher at PERG Learning, said in the statement.
Sazama, an RC leader, incorporated RC into the student council since at least 2006. The twice-monthly sessions ended abruptly in March, when six students, including the student representative of the Boston School Committee, resigned in protest.
Boston Public Schools has severed ties with Youth on Board, the nonprofit program Sazama cofounded. Sazama, who no longer works there, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. She has previously said students weren’t required to attend RC and defended her past work.
The students described enduring repeated racist comments by Sazama, who co-directed the council with a BPS employee, Maria Estrada. The students said both should face criminal investigations. At least one former student has said he has contacted police to discuss his experiences with Sazama.
“One should believe you are safe under the district’s care,” said Cady Malkemes, a junior at Boston Arts Academy, reading a statement by the student advisory council. “BPS neglected to stop the abuse and manipulation of their students.”
Students said Sazama, who is white, called Asian girls on the council by each other’s names, pressured Black students to share their feelings about racism before they were comfortable, disparaged immigrant communities, and called some Black students “articulate for their race.”
“She perpetuated stereotypes and microaggressions,” said Katio Barbosa, president of the council and a senior at Jeremiah E. Burke High School.
At an overnight student retreat, Colon said, Sazama cried in front of the students while describing her life. She asked the students to delve into their personal pain, Colon said, including by prodding a Black student to discuss slavery, which students found inappropriate.
Through the counseling sessions, Barbosa said, Sazama learned of difficulties he faced, and she brought them up later as leverage to persuade him to attend meetings.
“It was her form of blackmail with young people of color,” Barbosa said.
An independent investigation into the counseling sessions commissioned by Superintendent Brenda Cassellius this spring after the six students on the council resigned in protest showed students felt Sazama muffled their voices, emotionally manipulated them, and pushed them to attend RC sessions.
Following a Globe investigation published last week, Cassellius ordered an expanded investigation and, pending its outcome, placed Estrada on administrative leave. Cassellius had already ended the district’s partnership with Youth on Board.
“All of these steps aim to ensure that what these students experienced never happens again,” a district spokesman said, adding Cassellius and the district are committed to ensuring the council members feel “supported, affirmed and respected.”
Students on the Boston Student Advisory Council stopped short of calling for Cassellius’s resignation, as the students who resigned from the council did last week. The students speaking Monday said they were upset with Cassellius for last month telling them that they should not be on the council if they wanted to be activists.
Several students said they were insulted by the district’s first investigation, and didn’t want to participate again. They called for District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Acting Mayor Kim Janey to investigate. Last week, Rollins said she was “disturbed” and would meet with students.
The students also said Monica Roberts, the chief who oversaw Estrada, was “aware and neglectful” in the council’s use of RC, and should be held accountable. Roberts, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has previously said she was unaware of the extent that students engaged in RC.
Boston Public Schools has said parents signed permission slips that said peer counseling sessions were based on RC but several of the students said they never consented to RC.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.