Education

Boston schools to expand investigation into unlicensed ‘re-evaluation counseling’ sessions with students

"I will not tolerate any situation where any student feels they were mistreated or unheard," said Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Boston school officials say they will expand their investigation into the unlicensed and controversial student counseling sessions held by a nonprofit that was previously partnered with the district.

The broadened investigation was announced Thursday, on the heels of the release of a report earlier this week that detailed how the Boston Student Advisory Council — a student union with members from across high schools — operated with Youth on Board, a nonprofit.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius met with BSAC members Thursday and said she placed a school employee who co-directed the group on administrative leave, according to the The Boston Globe.

“I was saddened and angered reading the deeply painful stories shared by current and former students in the press this morning,” Cassellius, referring to a Globe report that shed light on student experiences with the counseling in question, said in a statement. “I will not tolerate any situation where any student feels they were mistreated or unheard.”

According to the newspaper, Cassellius’s statement also laid out steps aimed at improving oversight of programming administered by outside organizations.

“The issues raised by students, the investigation conducted by BPS, and the stories recounted in the media clearly show that we need to look even deeper to fully understand the size and scope of the concerns expressed by members of the Boston Student Advisory Council,” Cassellius said.

On Monday, Cassellius announced the district ended its relationship with Youth on Board following the release of the independent report that detailed student complaints and concerns about its counseling program and its former director.

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The investigation followed a wave of student resignations from the BSAC in March, when students came forward with the complaints.

Students said they felt a now-former director, Jenny Sazama, also a co-founder of the nonprofit, stifled their voices and emotionally manipulated them, particularly through the use of re-evaluation counseling, or RC. Students said they felt pressured into participating in RC and described the program, which was offered in Sazama’s basement before the COVID-19 pandemic, as “weird, uncomfortable, cult-like.”

Students also reported participating in regional RC events with adult strangers, according to the Globe. The investigation found Sazama, who is no longer employed by Youth on Board, does not have any counseling credentials.

Sazama did not return a request for comment from the Globe on Thursday, but told Boston.com in a statement Tuesday the nonprofit’s partnership with Boston schools “has been highly successful and nationally recognized for more than two decades.”

“It’s unfortunate to see it come to an end under these circumstances,” Sazama said in the statement.

RC is both a version of group counseling and an international organization that promotes its practice. The method involves people relating to difficult personal experiences and releasing emotions by laughing, crying, or screaming, the Globe reported. Tim Jackins, the head of RC, has denied that the organization is cult-like, the newspaper reported.

According to the Globe, the new independent investigation will involve interviews with more students, families, alumni, and staff, Cassellius said.

The superintendent also said the district has plans to launch new “risk management and compliance oversight protocols,” probe all of the district’s outside partnerships, and continue offering licensed counseling to students.

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