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A woman who was sexually assaulted in school as a teenager says the founder of a prominent “social emotional learning” non-profit that receives funding from California public schools pressured her to drop charges against the teacher who attacked her because his arrest could contribute to the “over-incarceration” of black men.
Jennifer Freed, a psychologist, astrologist, and sex guru who runs the “social emotional learning” (SEL) non-profit AHA! Santa Barbara, conducts talk circles with high school students with the goal of “reducing emotional/physical violence in schools by building healthy campus climates,” according to its website. But a woman who participated in those talk circles as a high school student says Freed pressed her to let a teacher who tormented her with sexual advances off the hook.
The woman, who The Daily Wire is referring to only as Maria because she was the victim of an assault as a minor, says Freed delivered a lecture to her about how her accusations against the teacher would contribute to the mass incarceration of black men in America. Freed suggested, according to Maria, that she consider a “restorative approach instead of going to authorities” after the teacher grabbed her buttocks and nibbled her ear when she was 17.
“I was very scared of Jennifer because she’s very persistent in getting what she wants. She said I will feel better if I talk to him and do a restorative approach instead of going to authorities,” Maria told The Daily Wire. “I think it’s really inappropriate for a licensed psychologist to say that to a victim a week after they’ve been assaulted by someone in authority. That really harmed me.”
Freed’s group AHA! Santa Barbara has gained national prominence for its work to advance SEL, a school curriculum that has been embraced by the Left in recent years. Freed’s organization has been feted by celebrities such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who visited the organization in May to herald its purported mental health benefits for youth. But the actions by Freed could fuel critics who say SEL prioritizes leftist politics over children’s emotional well-being.
Maria did not take Freed’s advice. Her accusations against the teacher, a black nationalist and socialist named Matef Harmachis, led to a criminal conviction for battery in 2017, his firing from the school in 2020, and a nearly $1 million settlement with the school district just months ago in a lawsuit that faulted the district for keeping Harmachis on staff despite years of sexually inappropriate behavior.
Freed is just one of the leftists who Maria says turned on her in defense of Harmachis. She told The Daily Wire that she is now “scared for [her] safety” after seeing far-left activists defend her attacker as the real victim because of his race.
Freed has denied that she knows Harmachis or pressured Maria to drop charges, saying she had nothing to do with the case and didn’t know why anyone would say that. But after a previous Daily Wire report on Harmachis, Freed took to Facebook to state that she had evidence that Maria had a positive view of her group.
“I have actual testimonials on video etc from MARIA about the groups AHA! and how much she gained,” Freed wrote. It is not clear how Freed would have even known who the pseudonym Maria referred to if she had nothing to do with the case.
For this story, Maria provided a detailed recounting of the encounter with Freed, which involved Freed asking to pick her up at her house and drive her to a restaurant called Public Market for lunch.
Maria said she met Freed at the restaurant instead and didn’t order any food. Freed said that she had “been hearing a lot of things about you” and that she’s “known Harmachis for a long time, we’re close friends,” according to Maria.
“You know what the rates of black men being incarcerated are. Knowing you, I know you’d just want to do a connection circle instead of pressing charges, and I’d facilitate that,” Freed continued, according to Maria. Maria said she sat in stunned silence, until Freed said she was going to tell the principal the next day that Maria had consented to the plan.
“She’s saying she’s going to say these things that I don’t want her to say. It seemed really wrong and transactional. I felt betrayed, I’ve known this person since I was like 13,” Maria told The Daily Wire. “She’s a licensed psychologist, why is she saying these things to me?”
One reason, Maria suspects, is that Harmachis’ wife, an ethnic studies professor named Diane Fujino, sits on the board of directors of a group that contributes money to AHA! Santa Barbara’s “social emotional learning” programs. Fujino’s Fund for Santa Barbara is listed in the group’s annual report as a donor.
“Now I feel like I was just a pawn that they wanted to get rid of because I was interrupting their business,” she said. “Of course she would encourage me to drop charges, she’s getting money from the district and she’s friends with my perpetrator.”
Freed declined an interview with The Daily Wire to reconcile her blanket denial with Maria’s detailed account.
“I have devoted much of my career to helping youths process trauma and learn methods of empowerment and resilience as a means to protect them from all forms of violence and become thriving community members,” Freed said in an email.
Maria said that besides the Harmachis incident, Freed used the talk circles to push her to be more sexually active, pushing students to consider masturbation and lesbian experiences. “I always pushed back against her when she was very sexually positive. At that time I wasn’t,” she said. “I felt like she was just laughing at me. It was like, you’re really crossing a boundary.”
“I was one of the only heterosexuals and Jennifer would question that and say, ‘Why can’t you be both?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not attracted to women.’ And she said, ‘I think the world would operate better if everyone was gay,’” Maria said. “I didn’t want to be pushed. I don’t want an adult to talk to me about personal intimate things.”
Freed has publicly discussed these after-school circles, explaining on the podcast Sex With Emily: “This is what we do with the teens, once we’ve heard from them all their basic misconceptions about sex, like guys only want girls who have completely shaved pubes and then find us disgusting unless we’re bare. Then we go ok, how’s that working for you?” A photo of her with the podcast host Emily showed her in a room full of sex toys.
AHA! Santa Barbara asked participants to sign waivers allowing Freed to use their images for promotional and fundraising purposes, then frequently directed them to record video testimonials praising the program, Maria said.
Freed’s invocation of video records of Maria in her possession raises concerns about the leverage that adults who engage in sex talk with children as part of SEL could have over them. Not only could such marketing materials be used to undercut youth’s credibility should they criticize the program, but if a teen girl was troubled by the conduct of SEL consultants and was tempted to sound the alarm, she would likely be conscious that the consultant knew plenty of embarrassing personal details about her—the type they are encouraged to disclose in talk circles.
In NXIVM, the brutal sex-slave cult that began as a “self-help” group run by a psychiatric nurse, women had to turn over embarrassing information which served as “collateral” to dissuade them from defecting, according to The New York Times.
Though Freed never made such a threat to Maria, the young hispanic immigrant said “of course” the secrets shared in the talk circles made it scary to call her out. “Because of the way she probed me I thought I needed to be extra nice to her,” she said.
Maria says her negative experience with Freed has impacted her ability to seek professional mental help.
“It took me a long time to disassociate psychologists with people like Jennifer,” Maria said. “She did a lot of harm to me, and I can only imagine the harm she does to other children. I don’t trust her.”
Read the Daily Wire’s series on indoctrination and abuse in the Santa Barbara schools: