Kevin Jennings insists the rarity of a public appearance by him in Washington last week did not mean conservatives’ calls for his resignation had affected his visibility.
Instead, the federal safe-schools chief emphasizes that he’s spent most of his time reaching out to schools and districts well beyond the nation’s capital.
“I don’t speak in D.C. I’m on the road a lot,” Mr. Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools, said in an interview after a pair of appearances March 8 involving the Close Up program. The four-decade-old program provides students with experiences that foster civics education.
His appearances—lunching with about 50 teachers at the National Press Club and later speaking with about 200 students—were his first Washington engagements publicized by the department since controversy over Mr. Jennings’ appointment flared last October. (“Controversy Still Swirls Around Safe-Schools Chief,” Oct. 28, 2009.)
Mr. Jennings is the founder and former leader of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. His appointment drew outrage, mainly from Republicans, after information resurfaced that, as a teacher more than two decades ago, he learned of a sexual relationship between a teenage student and an older man and did not move to disrupt it.
In his Close Up talk, Mr. Jennings implored teachers to remind students that smaller social changes make bigger ones possible, pointing to the long civil rights struggle that predated Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
“There were decades and decades and decades of folks who came before Martin Luther King,” he said.
Mr. Jennings, who is openly gay, did not directly address gay-rights issues in his public remarks. In the interview afterward, he said that students know the outcome of the civil rights movement, but that the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people “are not a settled field, so [lecturing about] it wouldn’t have quite the same historical impact.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Safe-Schools Chief Raises D.C. Profile