Students call on DA to investigate BPS
Members of the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) who gathered at the Bolling Building for a Monday press conference described descending a darkened stairway to a basement room with light-blue walls, stuffed animals and a broken couch.
In that room, the students said, they were encouraged and sometimes coerced into sharing their traumas with strangers as part of a controversial healing modality called Re-evaluation Counseling that discourages practitioners from psychotherapy and medication.
The sessions took place in the Jamaica Plain home of Jenny Sazama, the former executive director of Youth on Board, the organization Boston Public Schools contracted with to supervise BSAC.
The students are now calling on acting Mayor Kim Janey and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins to investigate Sazama and the BPS staff member who worked with her, Maria Estrada.
“BPS has failed us again,” said BSAC member Josie Hanna Colon, an 11th-grader at New Mission High School. “Time and time again, our issues are being swept under the rug.”
In March, a group of BSAC members resigned, including the student representative to the School Committee, Khymani James, who led a fiery press conference denouncing Sazama and Youth on Board’s administration of BSAC. James and other students equated Sazama’s use of Re-evaluation Counseling to emotional abuse and said students were traumatized by the sessions they were coerced into participating in.
“You were doing unlicensed therapy with no parental consent with a person you’ve never met before,” said Boston Latin Academy graduate Simon Chernow. “That’s crazy.”
Chernow said his parents called Sazama and let her know they didn’t want him attending the Re-evaluation Counseling sessions. Yet Sazama continued to pressure him to attend, he said.
Chernow and other students said they were pressured to attend weekly meetings in Sazama’s basement as well as regional and national Re-evaluation Counseling sessions.
In the end, it was the March BSAC press conference that put a stop to the sessions.
“Why did it take BPS so long to do something about this?” said Boston Latin School junior Tiffany Luo, who said she was pressured to attend sessions when she joined BSAC at age 14.
The district responded by severing its ties to Sazama and appointing a BPS employee to oversee BSAC. The district also launched an investigation into Youth on Board’s administration of BSAC, which it released last month.
At Monday’s press conference, however, BSAC members said a Boston Globe investigation into Youth on Board and Sazama did a more thorough job of examining what they were subjected to.
A day after the May 26 publication of the Globe article, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced a second, more thorough BPS investigation into Youth on Board.
Monday, a BPS spokesman released a statement on behalf of Cassellius.
“Superintendent Cassellius and the Boston Public Schools (BPS) remain committed to lifting up student voice and incorporating student experiences in our decision-making,” the statement reads. “We were deeply saddened to learn more about the experiences of several Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) students over the last two decades.”
Burke High School senior Katio Barbosa said BSAC has been given more freedom and autonomy in the months since Youth on Board was removed as administrator of the program.
“We have a lot more free rein over what we do,” he said.
Under Sazama, Barbosa said, the students were often prevented from advocating for changes she didn’t approve of. Barbosa said he hopes the expanded autonomy continues.
“They need to trust us more,” he said. “We’re still struggling with BPS listening to us. There’s still some tension around us picking our projects and choosing how we want to run our organization.”
For starters, Barbosa said the student representative to the School Committee should have a voting role, rather than an advisory role.
“We’re the ones who experience what’s going on at ground zero in the district,” he said. “We’re the ones experiencing what’s happening with the policies. It’s like inviting us to the table, but not letting us eat.”
Chernow said he thinks it’s unlikely the students will tolerate the level of control the group had under Sazama.
“We’re not going back to the way things were,” he said.