Since the 1990s, Kelly Bates, a lawyer and civic leader from Hyde Park, has been a steady presence in local political and nonprofit circles, building a resume she hopes will convince voters to send her to the City Council as an at-large member in November.
But for years, she has also played a role in the use of an unorthodox brand of group therapy known as Re-evaluation Counseling, or RC, with high schoolers on the Boston Student Advisory Council, a prestigious group that advises Boston Public Schools leaders on education policy.
Since students revealed the council’s use of RC in March, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has ordered two investigations and cut ties with Youth on Board, the nonprofit program that introduced the counseling, and with its leader, Jenny Sazama, an RC devotee and youth engagement leader in the RC organization. The first BPS investigation found students described RC as “weird, uncomfortable, cult-like”; following a Globe report, Cassellius ordered a second, expanded probe.
Bates is also a longtime practitioner of RC, in which participants relate difficult experiences and “discharge” intense emotions by crying, screaming, or laughing. Bates was one of 13 RC teachers in Massachusetts listed in the July 2020 issue of an RC journal, and in a December 2018 e-mail obtained by the Globe, Sazama called Bates an RC “area leader,” meaning she oversaw several local RC groups.
A student involved in the council a decade ago remembers Bates frequently facilitating RC sessions with students in Sazama’s Jamaica Plain basement, though current students don’t recall Bates attending RC sessions.
Bates was “just another counselor, like Jenny,” said the alumna, now in her 20s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
More recently, e-mails show that Bates was aware of, and encouraged, students’ involvement in RC; in 2019, Youth on Board sent Bates the council’s summertime RC schedule. And in 2018 and 2019, at Sazama’s behest, the nonprofit’s staff e-mailed Bates contact information for students who regularly attended RC to ensure they were informed of RC activities outside the Boston Public Schools.
The e-mails provide context for students’ allegations at a news conference this week that Sazama recruited council members into the larger RC organization.
“Every young member of BSAC was her next target to convert into RC members and she didn’t stop, no matter how many times you told her ‘no,’ ” said Simon Chernow, a senior at Boston Latin Academy.
Sazama, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has previously defended her work and said RC was optional for students. The RC organization this week said it was aware of Sazama’s RC work with BSAC students, but didn’t oversee the sessions as it deemed them outside its purview.
Bates, in a statement to the Globe, described herself as a guest speaker for BSAC’s RC events and said she no longer teaches the therapy practice.
“I shared flyers or opportunities to get involved if students were interested. If someone was made uncomfortable by this, I certainly apologize,” Bates, 51, said in a statement, adding she believed the students participated voluntarily and BPS had approved RC. She said she asked for students’ contact information at one point so she could know, as a guest speaker, who her audience would be. But in a 2019 e-mail, Bates checked the accuracy of a student’s phone number and inquired why certain individual students weren’t included on the contact list.
In her counseling interactions with students, she said, “the experiences seemed positive to all participants.”
Bates described RC as a healing practice that helped her personally.
“My mother struggled with mental health her whole life. I was raised by her and experienced housing insecurity and had to watch her pass away when I was in my thirties. This life has not been easy, and RC has greatly helped me to cope and heal,” she wrote in an e-mail.
But she expressed concern about its implementation in BPS.
“This is an unfortunate situation and mistakes were made that impacted students,” Bates said.
The RC organization said in a statement it didn’t consider the students RC members unless they took a 16-week class. It acknowledged some RC members joined after being introduced through BSAC, but said that was their choice.
“We do not get involved with other organizations for the purpose of recruiting people,” it said.
Bates is among a crowded field vying for an at-large City Council seat. Last week, her campaign reported having nearly $62,000, state reports show.
As the president of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, a nonprofit, Bates has worked as a diversity consultant and organized efforts to boost underrepresented communities’ political participation. In 2012 she served on a parents’ panel to consider changes to Boston’s school-assignment system.
She has also worked with Youth on Board in the past, coauthoring in 2001 a legal guide published by the nonprofit.
As a council candidate, she has sought to dissociate herself from RC. In response to a Globe query this week, she apologized for having an article mentioning her removed from the RC website on March 6, hours after students held a press conference calling BSAC’s counseling sessions emotional abuse and accusing Sazama of recruiting students into her RC “cult.” Bates made her candidacy official days later.
Now, she said, she believes “sharing my personal story, including trauma, is an important part of my campaign and who I am.”
Boston students have criticized the district for permitting RC to be required at times for them. Last week, four former BSAC members called for Cassellius to resign over her handling of the revelations.
Critics of RC say it exposes practitioners to other people’s trauma and reopens psychological wounds without offering closure or coping tools by licensed professionals. And, because RC is critical of conventional therapeutic interventions, its detractors say RC can discourage people from getting treatment that works.
As a Charlestown High School senior in 2018, Seana Fuller said she attended RC sessions in Sazama’s basement with her friend, a BSAC member. After graduating, she and her friend accepted invitations to join an RC group run by Bates, who Fuller said oversaw the RC area under which the student advisory council RC group operated. (RC denied that the students were considered part of the RC area.)
For years, Fuller said, Bates discouraged her from seeking psychotherapy for her depression, saying therapists only cared about money and wouldn’t help queer people of color like her. Now, she sees therapy works far better for her.
“They’re set up in a way to really socialize you into a certain mindset of: Don’t believe in therapy, listen to us, conform to their way of thinking,” Fuller said, which “closes people off from getting the healing that they need.”
Bates said she didn’t recall the conversation, but added that she has always encouraged people not to rush into any treatment but to explore their options.
The former BSAC student who requested anonymity told the Globe that Bates continued to invite her to RC sessions even after she graduated in June 2011.
“Come out to play at Jenny’s basement for my Rc group at 1pm? Not giving up on you! I bet you could use support. Luv, Kelly,” Bates wrote to the woman in December 2011, according to a text message provided to the Globe.
The woman said she believed Bates didn’t respect her decision to leave RC.
“She was texting me a lot even though she knew I didn’t want to participate in it anymore,” she said.
The Youth on Board worker who sent Bates students’ contact information said she thought the requests were strange but believed they were approved by Maria Estrada, the BPS employee who codirected the council with Sazama, because she was copied on the e-mails. On May 27, Cassellius placed Estrada on administrative leave.
“I knew Maria knew I was sending all this stuff,” said the woman, who spoke anonymously because she is concerned about retaliation.
BPS said the agreements with Youth on Board include requirements to abide by federal student privacy regulations, which allow families to have some personal information withheld, and that the district is not aware of the allegations that BSAC members’ contact information was shared with an RC representative.