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Jennings Encourages Activism in D.C. Remarks

By Ian Quillen — March 08, 2010 2 min read
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After urging students and teachers to try to “change the world,” federal school safety chief Kevin Jennings insisted Monday that conservatives’ calls for his resignation haven’t affected his visibility.

It’s just not Washingtonians, he said, who are seeing him.

“I feel like there is a genuine Beltway mentality where it becomes an echo chamber,” said Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools, in an interview after a rare public engagement in the nation’s capital. “I think it’s more that I don’t speak in D.C. I’m on the road a lot.”

Jennings, a former history teacher who took his current post last July, lunched Monday at the National Press Club with about 50 teachers from Close Up, a 39-year-old program that aims to inspire students to informed citizenry with hands-on experiences in Washington and elsewhere. He later spoke to 200 student participants at an auditorium near his office.

Jennings encouraged teachers to foster activism in students by emphasizing that many smaller actions in the civil rights movement made Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech possible.

“Segregation did not come to an end because Martin Luther King got up, did this speech, and white people in America went, ‘Oh my God! We didn’t know. We’re so sorry,’ ” Jennings told teachers. “That’s really not how it happened. There were decades and decades and decades of folks who came before Martin Luther King.”

Jennings also described to students a pilot program that will survey students about the greatest safety needs in their schools. States that win participation in the competitive-grant program will receive money to address those needs, he said. The program will begin in seven states next year, with potential for expansion thereafter.

A former activist himself--best known as the founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN--Jennings drew outrage from the right last October after decades-old advice he gave a high school student about a sexual relationship with an older man resurfaced.

Jennings, who is openly gay, touched on his sexuality Monday, but stopped short of relating LGBT rights struggles today and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.

“It’s impossible for kids to believe that in the lifetime of someone they see in front of them, it was impossible for two people of a different race to get married,” he said. “They just think it was inevitable that it was going to end. I remember when it wasn’t inevitable at all. .... LGBT rights are not a settled field. So it wouldn’t have quite the same historical impact.”

Asked if he drew a parallel, Jennings responded: “But that’s not my job. That’s not the point of the story.”

PHOTO: Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, speaks with students at the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools on March 8 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Councill for Education Week