School Climate & Safety

Controversy Still Swirls Around Safe-Schools Chief

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 23, 2009 6 min read
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Backers of the nation’s embattled safe-schools chief, Kevin Jennings, moved last week to offer support amid a continued campaign by conservative members of Congress, television commentators, and other critics demanding his ouster.

The latest escalation came Oct. 22, when Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., began circulating a letter to colleagues calling for hearings on whether Mr. Jennings’ position should be made subject to Senate confirmation—and urging that he undergo a congressional hearing in the meantime.

Already, more than 50 House Republicans signed an Oct. 15 letter to President Barack Obama circulated by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, calling for Mr. Jennings’ removal as the assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools.

The letter says that 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.”

Several education organizations, however, have responded with praise for Mr. Jennings, citing what they say is his lengthy record of working aggressively to improve school safety and climate.

The Alexandria, Va.-based curriculum group ASCD sent its own letter to the Education Department last week in support of Mr. Jennings. The group called him “a pioneer in the fight for a child’s right to be safe from bullying and harassment in school.”

Supporters say that Mr. Jennings has been consistent in emphasizing the importance of creating a safe and secure school environment.

“As a group, we have thought for a long time that the [Education Department] has been too narrowly focused and has not looked at what school climate variables and what the social, emotional, mental-health variables are that really inhibit a child’s ability to learn,” said Stacy Skalski, the director of public policy for the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Bethesda, Md.

The Education Department had made no comment as of press time last week. Previously, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has voiced support for Mr. Jennings, saying he has “dedicated his professional career to promoting school safety” and “is uniquely qualified for his job.”

Conservative groups such as the Family Research Council—which has an “action alert” about Mr. Jennings on its Web home page—and right-leaning commentators that include the Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity, continue to criticize Mr. Jennings as too radical for such a post.

Mr. Jennings, who has written and spoken about his experience of being bullied as a gay youth, was appointed to the office in July. As a longtime activist and the founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, he is best known for his work raising awareness about bullying and anti-gay harassment in school. (“Bullying a Top Concern for New Safe-Schools Chief,” July 15, 2009.)

In his new job, which he started July 6, Mr. Jennings includes overseeing the federal role in school safety—which, most recently, has included a part in dealing with swine-flu outbreaks in schools—and managing nearly $700 million in federal funding for grant programs that involve mental health, drug and violence prevention, and character education.

Long a Target

The 46-year-old former private school history teacher has encountered criticism throughout his career. His opponents point to his writings and statements related to his experiences with drug use and in counseling a high school student about homosexual behavior as reflective of what they say is an irresponsible attitude toward the issues his office deals with.

In public presentations before joining the department, for example, Mr. Jennings recounted a conversation with a teenage student during his teaching days in Massachusetts in the 1980s. When the student suggested having had a sexual encounter with an older man, Mr. Jennings said he hoped the student had used a condom.

Mr. Jennings had said that the student was 15 at the time, which provided grist for critics, who have argued that he was legally required to report the incident as the potential sexual abuse of a minor. A media-watchdog group recently confirmed that the student was 16 and at the age of consent, a fact that has helped quell that controversy somewhat.

Mr. Jennings, who was a new teacher at the time of the Massachusetts incident, recently expressed regret about how he had handled the situation.

“I should have asked for more information and consulted medical or legal authorities,” Mr. Jennings said in a statement released by the Education Department in response to the criticism. “Teachers back then had little training and guidance about this kind of thing. All teachers should have a basic level of preparedness. I would like to see the office of safe and drug-free schools play a bigger role in helping to prepare teachers.”

Another point of controversy is the foreword Mr. Jennings wrote to a 1999 book, Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue About Sexualities and Schooling. According to the Republican lawmakers’ Oct. 15 letter, the foreword offers evidence that he has “for more than 20 years, almost exclusively focused on promoting the homosexual agenda.” Critics have also pointed to writings that describe, in what they say is a cavalier fashion, his significant drug use in his youth.

Such attacks on Mr. Jennings are nothing new. Diane Lenning, a candidate for state schools chief in California, has been sharply critical of him for several years.

Ms. Lenning, who led the Republican Educators Caucus of the National Education Association, accused Mr. Jennings in a 2004 news interview of “unethical practice” for failing to report “sexual victimization of a student.” Lawyers for GLSEN sent Ms. Lenning a letter demanding that she desist from repeating such statements.

“His past record has shown that he’s focused narrowly on gay and lesbian students,” she said in an interview.

Some state-level school safety directors have expressed concern that under Mr. Jennings, the federal office of safe and drug-free schools may redirect its energy toward bullying at the expense of other important issues.

“As a high school principal for 25 years, I’ve seen bullying take place, but I’ve also seen a lot of drug and alcohol issues, gang-related issues, and all kinds of mental-health issues,” said Jon Akers, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, a state-funded collaborative in Richmond that provides resources to schools.

While anti-bullying efforts are important, he added, “to not give things equal weighting, and skewing the direction of the office of safe and drug-free schools, is not a good idea.”

Some supporters say that they are not as familiar with controversial viewpoints Mr. Jennings may have expressed earlier in his career, but that his recent record show he is qualified for the job.

“It’s very difficult to speak to things that happened 15 or 20 years ago,” said Jill Cook, the assistant director of the American School Counselors Association, in Alexandria, Va. “What I do know is that the work he has done through GLSEN and other efforts have all been about doing what’s best for kids, and helping schools to be a place where kids can learn.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as Controversy Still Swirls Around Safe-Schools Chief

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