Many in the conservative media are engaging in an all-out attack on Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools director Kevin Jennings, unleashing anti-gay rhetoric, grossly distorting a discussion Jennings recounted having with a teenager, and, in some cases, even pushing for him to be fired or to resign. But these right-wing caricatures of Jennings are undercut by the fact that education and other officials have spoken highly of Jennings, who has received numerous awards and was a one-time appointee of Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
Conservative media conducting anti-Jennings offensive
Media conservatives attack Jennings with homophobic, extreme rhetoric. In their attacks on Jennings, numerous conservative media figures have resorted to thinly veiled homophobic appeals to paint Jennings, who is gay, as a “radical” “gay activist” with an “agenda” of “promoting homosexuality in schools.”
Rush Limbaugh baselessly accused Jennings of encouraging sexual relationship between student, adult. On the September 28 broadcast of his radio show, Limbaugh baselessly accused Jennings of having “encouraged” and “facilitated” a sexual relationship between a male high school student and an older man. In fact, there is no evidence that Jennings either “encouraged” or “facilitated” the relationship; indeed, Jennings has stated simply that he “listened, sympathized, and offered advice” to the student, who was struggling with his sexuality.
Sean Hannity on Jennings: “I want him fired!” Sean Hannity called for Jennings' dismissal during the September 30 edition of Fox News' Hannity. Additionally, an October 1 “You Decide” online poll on FoxNews.com asked, “Should Obama Ask for 'Safe Schools' Czar Kevin Jennings' Resignation?”
Hannity panel named Jennings “most dangerous” and “worst” of Obama's “czars.” During a panel discussion on the September 18 edition of Hannity, Hannity asked National Review's Andrew McCarthy, “Who do you think is the worst person he appointed? Who do you think is the most dangerous?” McCarthy replied, “Well, I certainly think, of the list we've looked at, Jennings is the worst that he's appointed.” Hannity asked Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour, “Who do you think is the most dangerous?” Nikpour answered: “Well, I think it's Kevin Jennings. Not only that, that he's a gay activist, but he was part of the GLSEN. He was the former director for GLSEN. They held a conference in which techniques for, I think it was, homosexuality, how to perform different techniques. That's insane." [Hannity, 9/18/09 (from Nexis)]
But educators, other officials paint very different picture of Jennings
S.C. Association of School Administrators' Molly Spearman reportedly said Jennings did a “magnificent job” at her group's summit. From a July 3 entry on the Think Progress blog [emphasis in original]:
ThinkProgress spoke with Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. Spearman first heard Jennings speak at the 2007 convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Spearman said that she was so impressed with Jennings, she decided to invite him to speak at her organization's October 2007 summit on bullying:
I was a little nervous, being in South Carolina, a very conservative state. But once again, he handled it extremely professionally. He did a magnificent job, and it was a huge success. We had a waiting list of people who wanted to come. ... We had several hundred people there. ... He was very very well-received -- absolutely rave views. And that was in conservative South Carolina. So he handled what could have been a very sensitive topic in a very professional way that was accepted by everyone.
Spearman added that while Jennings did present statistics on the harassment of LGBT students, he more broadly focused on the bullying of all students, pointing out that it was a problem that wasn't specifically confined to one group.
Education Week: "[E]xperts in school safety and student mental health say" Jennings' appointment “sends an important signal.” The July 13 Education Week article added that Jennings' appointment sends the message “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.” From the article:
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.”
National Association of School Psychologists' Susan Gorin: Jennings' group works “to ensure harassment of all sorts is reduced and eradicated.” The July 13 Education Week article also quoted Gorin saying of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an advocacy organization Jennings founded, “On the national level, I think they have served as the conscience for schools to ensure harassment of all sorts is reduced and eradicated.”
Learning First Alliance's Claus von Zastrow on Jennings: “You would be-hard pressed to find anyone who has done more to promote ... trust and mutual respect in our schools.” In a September 25 entry on Public School Insights, the website of the Learning First Alliance, LFA executive director Claus von Zastrow wrote:
Kevin Jennings is the right person to lead the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. He is a passionate advocate for the welfare of all children in our schools. As the former head of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, he demonstrated his devotion to the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
He will stand up for any child who faces harassment for any reason: race, religion, sexual orientation or political beliefs. You would be-hard pressed to find anyone who has done more to promote values such as trust and mutual respect in our schools.
The Learning First Alliance includes the following organizations:
- American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
- American Association of School Administrators
- American Association of School Personnel Administrators
- American Federation of Teachers
- American School Counselor Association
- Association of School Business Officials International
- Council of Chief State School Officers
- National Association of Elementary School Principals
- National Association of Secondary School Principals
- National Association of State Boards of Education
- National Education Association
- National Middle School Association
- National PTA
- National Staff Development Council
- National School Boards Association
- National School Public Relations Association
- Phi Delta Kappa International
Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary: Jennings is “one of the most committed Christians I know.” Many media conservatives have misrepresented comments Jennings expressed in his memoir to claim that Jennings has, in Fox News host Brian Kilmeade's words, “expressed contempt for religion.” However, The Washington Post's Jacqueline L. Salmon reported in a September 24 blog entry that Union Theological Seminary president Rev. Serene Jones said Jennings is “one of the most committed Christians I know” and added, “It's often the mark of a serious Christian that they wrestle with and critique their faith.”
GLSEN's Eliza Byard: “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.” From the July 13 Education Week article:
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.
“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.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Jennings is “uniquely qualified for his job.” From an October 1 Los Angeles Times report:
Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement of support for Jennings, saying that “he is uniquely qualified for his job, and I am honored to have him on our team.”
Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said the accusation that Jennings promoted homosexuality was too ridiculous to deserve comment.
Jennings is the recipient of several awards, was appointed to key post by Republican governor
Weld appointed Jennings to education position. Jennings' Department of Education biography notes, “In 1992, he was appointed by Gov. William Weld (Mass.) to co-chair the Education Committee of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.”
Jennings was awarded the Diversity Leadership Award of the National Association of Independent Schools [NAIS] in 2008. The NAIS cited Jennings' achievements in education and his work with GLSEN in bestowing the award on Jennings.
Jennings has received other awards for his work in education. According to Jennings' biography, Jennings “is also the recipient of the Human and Civil Rights Award of the National Education Association [and] the Distinguished Service Award of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.”