Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins met virtually Tuesday with current and former members of a Boston Public Schools student government group, some of whom were exposed to an unorthodox form of group therapy under the supervision of an outside contractor.
The meeting was confirmed by Rollins’s office and Khymani James, who abruptly resigned from the Boston Student Advisory Council in March, and then, at a news conference, called the counseling sessions emotional abuse and accused one of the program leaders, Jenny Sazama, of recruiting students into her Re-Evaluation Counseling “cult.”
The council is a prestigious group of high school students who advise Boston Public Schools leaders on education policy.
On Twitter, James said the meeting focused on “the trauma that hundreds of students had to face at the hands of” Sazama, the program she led, Youth on Board, and BPS.
“I thank [Rollins] and her team for taking us students seriously and moving swiftly on this issue,” James wrote on Twitter.
Reached by phone, James said five students participated in the meeting, and described Rollins as empathetic, honest, and direct.
“We just outlined next steps and discussed what accountability looks like both individually and collectively,” said James, who graduated from Boston Latin Academy earlier this month. James has said he didn’t attend RC but said he was advocating for students who did.
A spokesman for Rollins released a statement that said she and her deputies met with the youth who were “impacted by the actions” of Youth on Board.
“Any time a young person is traumatized or negatively impacted by the actions of an individual or an organization, the district attorney’s office wants to hear their story and raise up their voices,” said Matthew Brelis, the spokesman. “Today’s meeting was the first step of many in gaining a better understanding of the actions of this organization. The DA’s office will continue to listen to the voices of those impacted and review of the conduct of this organization and individuals associated with it.”
Earlier this month, Rollins had said she planned to meet with the students, releasing a statement on June 2 that said she was “disturbed to hear of the alleged emotional abuse that BPS students endured while participating in unlicensed Re-evaluation Counseling.”
Re-evaluation Counseling encourages participants to relate difficult experiences to another person or group and “discharge” their emotions by crying, screaming, or laughing. Proponents see that emotional release as key to psychological health. Detractors say RC may expose practitioners to other people’s trauma and reopen psychological wounds without offering closure or coping tools by licensed professionals.
Sazama, who has left Youth on Board, didn’t respond to an e-mail Tuesday evening.
Since students revealed the council’s use of RC, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has ordered two investigations and cut ties with Youth on Board and 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.
The RC organization has 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. The group said it didn’t consider the students RC members unless they took a 16-week class, noting that some youth voluntarily joined after being introduced to the counseling through BSAC.
On Tuesday, the district said it was not alerted to the meeting with Rollins and no one from the School Department attended.
“BPS is continuing our expanded investigation into past practices to ensure our students are appropriately supported and their concerns are adequately addressed,” said the statement, which thanked Rollins for her “continued care and support of our students and all Boston children.”
“BPS remains committed to engaging in conversations with current and former students to rebuild trust with our youth leaders and strengthen our relationship with the Boston Student Advisory Council,” the statement said.