Exiting Official Made Anti-Bullying a Top Priority
After contentious start, Jennings pressed ahead on school safety issues
When Kevin Jennings recalls the mother of Carl Walker-Hoover handing his 6th grade picture to first lady Michelle Obama at a White House anti-bullying conference earlier this year, he gets choked up.
Carl was 11 when he hanged himself in April 2009, an event his mother said was the result of bullying at school in Springfield, Mass.
Mr. Jennings, who survived his own share of personal and political attacks but went on to thrive in his efforts to create national awareness about bullying, left his post as assistant deputy secretary running the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools last week after about two years.
“I’ve gotten to know so many of these parents,” Mr. Jennings, 48, said of the families of bullying victims. “I was really proud to play a part in galvanizing the administration to do something about it,” he said, although some supporters fear his departure could mean the attention on bullying will diminish.
He leaves the Education Department to become president and chief executive officer of Be the Change, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit that previously worked on campaigns devoted to volunteering. Mr. Jennings will work on the group’s new campaign about improving economic opportunities. The department said it is unknown when Mr. Jennings’ replacement will be appointed.
His new job is a departure from the work he has been devoted to for much of his career. Before being appointed assistant deputy secretary by Secretary Arne Duncan, Mr. Jennings founded and ran the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which works on improving the climate in schools for students who may face problems because of their sexual orientation. ("Bullying a Top Concern for New Safe-Schools Chief," July 15, 2009.)
After a lifetime working on one of his passions, Mr. Jennings said it is time to work on the other.
“I grew up gay and I grew up poor. I’ve had a chance to help young gay kids. I lived below the poverty line in trailer parks across the South. I had a chance to live the American dream,” said Mr. Jennings, the first in his family to go to college. “That dream seems to be disappearing for the next generation.”
Mr. Jennings is leaving, long after the controversy surrounding his appointment subsided. Soon after he was appointed in 2009, a group of House Republicans wrote to President Barack Obama, asking for Mr. Jennings’ removal. The letter said Mr. Jennings “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.”
The conservative Family Research Council created a website devoted to criticizing Mr. Jennings, in part because of advice he once gave a student more than 20 years earlier. Mr. Jennings said that when he was a high school teacher in 1988, a sophomore told him he had gone home with an older man he met in a bus station. Mr. Jennings said he told the boy, “I hope you knew to use a condom.” Mr. Jennings later said he regretted not informing the police or a doctor.
In a statement about Mr. Jennings’ departure, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, revisited some of those early critiques.
“His inability to recognize appropriate boundaries restricting sexual relationships between adults and children rendered him unfit for any post in the Department of Education,” he said. “Mr. Jennings’ announcement that he is leaving the Department of Education means that our schoolchildren are safer. I only wish he had never received this appointment in the first place, and our schoolchildren should have never been put in jeopardy.”
However, Mr. Jennings is firm that no one asked him to step aside. He said that when Congress slashed his office’s $403 million budget by more than $100 million earlier this year, his decision to leave had already been made.
Despite those early attacks, Mr. Jennings went on to successfully promote bullying-prevention efforts, culminating in the White House conference on the issue in March.
During his last week on the job, he oversaw the first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth Summit in Washington, an event devoted to improving the school experiences of those students, frequent targets of bullies.
Separately, in October, the Education Department’s civil rights office issued a letter outlining schools’ roles in cases of bullying, noting that “a school is responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known.”
His supporters fear that with Mr. Jennings’ leaving, the spot light on bullying issues may dim.
“Without a federal champion in Congress or coming out of the White House or the department, it’s hard to stay focused on some of those things,” said Katherine C. Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, in Bethesda, Md. “It takes the leadership ... that’s one of the things Kevin Jennings really lends to this effort.” In her view, he is the first federal official who has zeroed in on bullying.
Indeed, Mr. Jennings “got it,” said Brian Law, the president of the American School Counselors Association and a counselor at Valdosta High School, in Valdosta, Ga. “He said, ‘Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.’ When he said those words, it was very meaningful to me. We actually had someone at the [Education Department] that understood our roles.”
Mr. Jennings said though he is proud of his anti-bullying accomplishments, he doesn’t believe his departure will reduce the department’s attention to the issue.
“I do feel there’s a tremendous amount of momentum. I don’t think it’s dependent on Kevin Jennings,” he said, noting the president’s interest and a second federal bullying summit planned for the fall.
Some look forward to his successor's taking what they consider a more balanced approach to school safety.
“Kevin ... skewed federal policy and funding. He was the conductor of a runaway train on bullying issues. I don’t consider that healthy whatsoever,” said Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. Mr. Trump said he hopes the administration will consider turning the job back into a civil service position, as it was before 2002.
Mr. Trump and Jon Akers, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, in particular find fault with the office for cuts in funding for emergency grants schools could use to train staff members. ("Budget Eliminates Emergency Grants; Districts Regroup," March 16, 2011.)
When the emergency grant program was last funded in the 2010 fiscal year, about $30 million was set aside for district-level grants. The preparations weren’t just for incidents of school violence, but any emergency, such as weather-related disasters.
Mr. Jennings defended his work, saying that while bullying prevention received attention, his office also worked on other issues. Last year, his office awarded nearly $40 million in grants to 11 states to measure school safety at the building level and intervene in schools with the greatest safety needs.
In addition, he said, the work of keeping schools safe has evolved, particularly since the fatal shootings at Columbine High School, in Colorado, in 1999.
“After Columbine, our office did a study of school shooters. There are many fewer of these events. Schools are better prepared,” he said. “Ten years from now, my hope is that we can say the same thing about bullying.”
Vol. 30, Issue 35, Pages 22-23