Kevin Jennings, the man President Obama appointed as his Assistant Deputy Secretary at the Department of Education for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, more generally known as the “Safe Schools Czar”, is under attack. An anti-gay smear campaign has been launched against him that has resulted in 53 House Representatives calling for his dismissal. We take a look at the claims made in this campaign, and the reasons why they are false.
Who is Kevin Jennings?
Kevin Jennings is a Harvard educated history teacher, writer and gay rights campaigner. He set up America’s first gay-straight alliance and, later, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that promotes safety in schools for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children and teens.
Jennings relates these details and more in his memoir Mamma’s Boy, Preacher’s Son, where he also talks about his conservative upbringing and the problems his sexuality caused with his parents. However, this same memoir is now being used against him as the basis of a smear campaign.
Anti-gay group the Family Research Council have set up a website which takes quotes from Jennings’ memoir and uses them to try and “prove” that Mr. Jennings is unsuitable for his role as Safe Schools Czar.
Based on this misinformation, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has written to President Obama calling for Jennings’ dismissal. A further 52 House Representatives have co-signed to support this move.
The Letter Calling for Jennings’ Dismissal
In the letter, King begins by asking President Obama for Mr. Jennings to be removed from his role as Safe Schools Czar. King feels Jennings lacks the “qualifications” and the “ethical standards” that are necessary for the role and then attempts to prove this assertion. I’ll quote from the letter below, drawing out the main points, but if you would like to read the full text, please click here.
King begins with the following:
“As the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Mr. Jennings has played an integral role in promoting homosexuality and pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America’s schools—an agenda that runs counter to the values that many parents desire to instill in their children.”
I think this one speaks for itself. Apparently, if you are gay or work toward the safe and supportive integration of LGBTs in American schools, then you have a “homosexual agenda”. It’s an old, tired piece of rhetoric that attempts to blur the fact that in setting up GLSEN, Mr. Jennings has dedicated himself to promoting safe and tolerant schools.
“Throughout his career, Mr. Jennings has made it his mission to establish special protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students to the exclusion of all other students. The totality of Mr. Jennings’ career has been to advocate for public affirmation of homosexuality.”
They are not “special” protections at all, but equal protections. Through GLSEN, Mr. Jennings has worked to ensure that LGBT children are protected from harassment in a national school system that, until relatively recently, had very few policies in place to deal with anti-gay bullying.
And this has not been to the “exclusion of all other students”, since promoting a safe, respectful and affirming environment in schools benefits each and every child, gay or straight.
The next paragraph reads:
“Equally troubling is Mr. Jennings’ self-described history of ignoring the sexual abuse of a child. In his book, One Teacher in Ten, Mr. Jennings recounts a 15-year old student confiding in him that he had a sexual relationship with a much older man. Mr. Jennings’ only response was to ask if the underage boy used a condom. As a mandatory reporter, Mr. Jennings was required by law to report child abuse, including sex crimes. Mr. Jennings cannot serve as the “safe schools” czar when his record demonstrates a willingness to overlook the sexual abuse of a child.”
This allegation is unfounded and was disproved.
The young man referred to is one “Brewster” (name changed to protect the man’s privacy). Brewster was tracked down shortly after this allegation was made. The website Media Matters was able to obtain Brewster’s driving license which proved that Brewster was in fact 16 in 1988 when the incident occurred. This is the legal age of consent in Massachusetts.
Furthermore, Brewster never had a sexual affair with that older man. Brewster has now released a statement thoroughly denouncing these claims, telling Media Matters:
“In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a sixteen year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence. I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation’s students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings’ courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I’d be the proud gay man that I am today.
Mr Jennings did not violate his responsibilities as a teacher and there was no incident of child abuse or statutory rape. Jennings has readily admitted that he did not handle the situation in the best possible way. He pinpoints this incident as one that pushed him to create the GLSEN so as to better equip teachers with guidelines on how to deal with gay and lesbian students and their needs. If you would like to read more about this incident, please click here.
On with the letter:
“His own history of unrepentant drug and alcohol abuse indicates that he is of the opinion that getting drunk and high as a young person is acceptable. In his memoir, Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son, Mr. Jennings describes his use of illegal drugs, without expressing regret or acknowledging the devastating effects illegal drug use can have on a person’s life.”
As Box-Turtle Bulletin points out, Jennings memoir speaks of drug use only once. A single sentence relates to an incident of smoking pot. One. Regrettable perhaps, but hardly a detail rendering Jennings unable to promote safe and drug free schools. Rep. King has no other evidence to suggest Mr. Jennings has ever had a drug problem.
Jennings admits he did abuse alcohol when he was younger, yes, but does not do so now. This fact alone does not disqualify him, and contrary to Rep. King’s assertions, nor does it infer in anyway Mr. Jennings’ attitude towards teen drug abuse or alcohol use today.
The final paragraph of the letter reads:
“Everyone that deals with the education of the most vulnerable must be a positive role model. Our children are not blessed with the wisdom to discern and reject. Children presume the adults who educate them are approved by the larger society and their parents. Kevin Jennings cannot gain the approval of parents who want their children safe and their schools drug free. You should replace him with someone who has a record of educating children in a safe and moral environment.
Given these very serious issues with Mr. Jennings’ record, we urge you to remove him immediately.”
It is interesting that Rep. King does not believe Jennings to be a good role model. Jennings has won an array of awards from both LGBT groups and wider education authorities.
The honors bestowed upon him include the Human and Civil Rights Award of the National Education Association, a Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Diversity Leadership Award from the National Association of Independent Schools.
As to Mr. Jennings’ ethical standards, it may be of use to note that he is a religious man who has served on the board of the Union Theological Seminary. While being religious does not necessarily give an accurate picture of a person’s ethics, I assume that this is what Rep. King means when he refers to moral and ethical standards.
The Family Research Council have also attempted to use quotes from Mr. Jennings’ biography to prove that he is against God. These quotes were taken from his adolescent years. They say nothing about his opinions or beliefs now. More on this at Think Progress.
It seems that the only detail that can’t be refuted in Rep. King’s letter and the campaign that the Family Research Council have launched, is the fact that Mr. Jennings is gay. Is this, perhaps, their only real complaint?
Take Action – Stop the Smear Campaign Against Kevin Jennings!
GLSEN have launched a petition to stop the anti-gay smear campaign against Kevin Jennings. The unfounded, unfair and derogatory attacks made against Mr. Jennings should not be allowed to cloud a body of work that in fact puts Mr. Jennings in a uniquely qualified position to ensure that all school children get the protection and treatment they deserve. Sign the GLSEN petition today.
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