School Climate & Safety

Bullying a Top Concern for New Safe-Schools Chief

By Michele McNeil — June 23, 2009 5 min read
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To lead the federal effort to keep schools safe, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has tapped a Southern Baptist preacher’s gay son who turned a childhood of prejudice, taunts, and harassment into an activist career that’s sought to expand tolerance, safety, and opportunities for gay and lesbian students.

The selection of Kevin Jennings as the assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools sends an important signal, experts in school safety and student mental health say, that safety is about more than keeping guns and knives out of schools. It’s also about improving school climate by decreasing bullying and teaching students tolerance.

“How can you perform in school if you’re worried about getting beat up and made fun of?” asked Stephen Sroka, a health education consultant and an adjunct assistant professor at the school of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. “Violence is more than just physical; it’s verbal and very mental.”

As the founder and former executive director of the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, known as GLSEN, Mr. Jennings, a 46-year-old former history teacher, worked to make schools friendlier places for gay students. He also

helped shine a spotlight on the prevalence and consequences of bullying among all students. He officially left GLSEN last October.

While that background and Mr. Jennings’ record on issues regarding sexual orientation have won him praise from many people involved in student-safety issues, his appointment has also sparked opposition from some socially conservative groups.

“It’s not the fact that he’s a homosexual, it’s really his record that makes us concerned,” said Peter Spriggs, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Washington-based Family Research Council, whose political arm launched a letter-writing campaign urging Secretary Duncan to rescind the job offer.

In his new job, which he started July 6, Mr. Jennings is in charge

of overseeing the federal role in school safety—which, most recently, included a role in dealing with outbreaks of swine flu in school—and managing nearly $700 million in federal funding

for grant programs that involve mental health, drug and violence prevention, and character education.

Mr. Jennings, who was a Barack Obama supporter, fundraiser, and donor during the president’s 2008 campaign, was not available for comment for this article.

But by picking one of the nation’s leading advocates for gay and lesbian students for this post, Mr. Duncan and the Obama administration appear to be signaling the importance of improving school climate for such students.

“This is a pretty big deal, and it says a lot about Arne Duncan,” said Bob Chase, a board member of GLSEN and a former president of the National Education Association.

In March, students from GLSEN chapters visited Mr. Duncan to share their personal stories and the data behind the bullying and harassment students are subjected to based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. In April, the secretary highlighted, in a statement about school safety, the need to protect students who are victims of harassment and bullying because of their sexual orientation. And earlier this month, Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., spoke at GLSEN’s awards banquet.

As an assistant deputy secretary, Mr. Jennings is not at the top rung of the Education Department’s leadership, but his appointment hasn’t escaped critical notice.

In addition to the letter-writing campaign featured on the Web site of theFamily Research Council, that group tried to find allies in Congress to fight the selection, said Mr. Spriggs, although the appointment did not need Senate confirmation.

He added that his group hasn’t taken such action regarding other posts filled by gay or lesbian appointees in the Obama administration.

The reason for the Family Research Council’s opposition in this instance, Mr. Spriggs said, was its view that Mr. Jennings and GLSEN promote a pro-homosexuality agenda in schools, and one that is hostile to people of faith.

Other groups, including Catholic Online and Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, had taken a public stand against the appointment.

Officials of GLSEN said they had expected such opposition. “The appointment itself is a wonderful affirmation of the fact that people are not buying these kinds of arguments anymore,” said Eliza Byard, the new executive director of GLSEN.

High-Profile Organization

Other groups, meanwhile, see GLSEN’s impact positively.

“On the national level, I think they have served as the conscience for schools to ensure harassment of all sorts is reduced and eradicated,” Susan Gorin, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Bethesda, Md., said of Mr. Jennings’ former organization.

Mr. Jennings started GLSEN in 1990 as a local, volunteer organization of 70gay and lesbian educators in the Boston area. At the time, there were just two gay-straight alliances in the country; such groups bring together students of different sexual orientations to address issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Now, there are some 4,000 groups in U.S. schools, according to GLSEN.

The organization was an outgrowth of deeply personal experiences and torments Mr. Jennings experienced as a child in conservative areas of the South, growing up so poor that the good times meant living in a double-wide trailer, according to his 2006 memoir, Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son.

Mr. Jennings describes his father as strict and rather intolerant, and his mother as a passionate and dedicated woman who did not want her own lack of education to become her son’s fate. He writes that he was teased and bullied in school for being different—and for being smart—but muddled through and made it to Harvard.

He later got a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an M.B.A. from New York University. A high school history teacher, he recounts seeing gay students struggle with the same difficulties he had faced. He eventually gave up teaching to found gslen as a nonprofit organization, and became its executive director in 1995.

“Kevin is a classroom teacher who saw something was wrong and took the enormous step of taking his entire career and doing something about it,” Ms. Byard said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Bullying a Top Concern for New Safe-Schools Chief

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