Conservative media backtrack, alter thoroughly debunked claim that Jennings failed to report “statutory rape”

After falsely accusing Department of Education official Kevin Jennings of violating the law for failing to report the “statutory rape” or “child molestation” of a “15-year-old boy” in 1988, several conservative media figures have backtracked from that thoroughly debunked allegation, acknowledging that the student was, in fact, 16 years old and of legal age at the time. These media figures have since altered their attacks on Jennings to argue that the student's actual age is irrelevant, asserting instead -- in the words of The Washington Times -- that a 16-year-old student's involvement with an older man still should have “raised alarm,” and advancing the baseless claim that -- as The American Spectator's Jeffrey Lord stated -- Jennings “thought” the student was 15 at the time of their conversation.

Washington Times backtrack: Regardless of age, conversation “should have raised alarm”

Allegation: Student was “15-year-old,” Jennings “failed to do what the law required.” In a September 28 editorial, The Washington Times wrote, “A teacher was told by a 15-year-old high school sophomore that he was having homosexual sex with an 'older man.' At the very least, statutory rape occurred. Fox News reported that the teacher violated a state law requiring that he report the abuse.” The editorial further stated that Jennings “not only failed to do what the law required but actually encouraged the relationship.” In a September 29 editorial, The Washington Times compared Jennings to Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) and stated that “the Jennings case brings a lot more: A 'safe schools czar' who failed to report a statutory rape? An education leader who encouraged a 15-year-old student to be comfortable with sexual abuse? A federal official who ignored a law requiring him to report even the possibility of a crime?” The editorial further characterized Jennings as “an appointee who thinks sex between an adult and a 15-year-old is no big deal.”

Backtrack: Whether student was 15 or 16, “sophomore” involved with older man should have “raised alarm.” In an October 8 editorial, The Washington Times wrote, “Whether Brewster was 15 years old or just turned 16, a sophomore having sex with an older man he met at a bus station bathroom should have raised alarm.” The editorial also stated, “There are still many unanswered questions about how he handled a high-school sophomore who he said confessed to a homosexual relationship with an older man.” [The Washington Times, 10/8/09]

Sean Hannity backtrack: unconvinced of student's confirmed age, which is “neither here nor there”

Allegation: "[S]tatutory rape occurred. And he didn't report it." Hannity stated on the September 30 edition of his Fox News program, “We have the safe schools czar, a guy by the name of Kevin Jennings, OK? And he -- he writes this book, and he gives information to a 15-year-old. ABC News and Jake Tapper write about this tonight. A 15-year-old sophomore. And his advice to him when he -- when he's having a gay relationship is, you know, 'Did you use a condom?' He knew it was an older adult. Now, as The Washington Times said, at the very least, statutory rape occurred. And he didn't report it.” Hannity, who has called for Jennings to be fired, later stated, “Actions have consequences. If you don't report a crime against a child that is having sex with an adult. I thought actions had consequences” (transcript accessed via Nexis).

Backtrack: Noting student confirmed he was 16, Hannity said, “I'm not convinced of the timeline. But that's neither here or there.” On October 5, Hannity said, “Jennings admitted that he was aware of a sexual relationship between a high school sophomore who now claims he was 16 at the time and an older man. It was Jennings who originally said the boy was 15.” Hannity added on the October 6 edition of his show, “Now, the kid has since come out, and he said, 'No, no, I was 16 at the time.' I'm not convinced of the timeline. But that's neither here or there. Jennings is the one that said the kid was 15. And he spoke about it and spoke about it extensively.”

Kirsten Powers backtrack: "[T]he kid was 16 and not 15? What's the difference?"

Allegation: "[H]e had a responsibility to report it." During the October 1 edition of Hannity, Fox News contributor and New York Post columnist Kirsten Powers asserted that Jennings should be fired and that "[t]hese are children, and he was in a position of authority and this kid confided in him, and he had a responsibility to report it" (transcript accessed via Nexis).

Backtrack: "[S]o the kid was 16 and not 15? What's the difference? I don't really see the difference frankly." Appearing on Hannity on October 7, Powers stated that "[t]he argument in defense of Obama and Jennings is that the kid was actually 16 years old," adding, “My response to that is so what? And so the kid was 16 and not 15? What's the difference? I don't really see the difference frankly. And if we were talking about a 16-year-old involved with an 18-year-old or something, that's a little different. But, you know, when we talk about a much older man and a 16-year-old, 15-year-old coming to a counselor and saying, 'I'm having sex with this older man,' I really -- I don't think the appropriate response is 'I hope you're wearing a condom.' ”

American Spectator backtrack: "[T]he issue here is not Brewster's actual age at the time"

Allegation: Student was “15-year-old boy” who told Jennings about “what in fact was a case of child molestation.” In an October 6 commentary, Lord wrote that Jennings has “admitted that when, as a teacher, he was sought out by a 15-year-old boy asking for advice about an affair with an older adult male, Jennings suggested wearing a condom.” Noting Harry Hay's praise of NAMBLA, Lord added that “Hay was advocating precisely the mindset that Kevin Jennings appears to have exhibited when he, Jennings, advised a 15-year-old boy the way to deal with a child molester was wear a condom.” Lord further wrote, “Jennings, by his own admission, when face to face with a boy (let's say that again -- a boy) who came to him and revealed what in fact was a case of child molestation -- suggested a condom!” [The American Spectator, 10/6/09]

Backtrack: "[T]he issue here is not Brewster's actual age at the time." In an October 7 blog post, Lord wrote that “the issue here is not Brewster's actual age at the time. The issue is what Mr. Jennings thought his age was -- and thinking that thought, how did he respond? More to the point, is he carrying around these thoughts today and trying in some fashion to make them the official policy of the U.S. Department of Education?” [The American Spectator blog, 10/7/09]