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The New Right-Wing Hit Job: Kevin Jennings

5 years ago
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Is the right-wing hit squad going cruel?

After chasing both Van Jones, a White House green jobs adviser, and Yosi Sergant, the communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts, out of their jobs, they have a new target in the crosshairs: Kevin Jennings, director of the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. The conservative Family Research Council has launched a crusade to get Jennings canned. The Washington Times has accused Jennings of "failure to report" statutory rape. Fox Nation Web site has also bashed Jennings for "covering up statutory rape." Michelle Malkin has slammed Jennings for not protecting a student from "a homosexual child predator." Sean Hannity has called for his scalp.

So what did Jennings do?

In a 1994 book, he recounted his experience as an in-the-closet gay teacher at a private school, and he described a 1988 episode in which a male high school sophomore confided to him his involvement with an older man. Jennings was 24 years old then, and as he wrote, "I listened, sympathized, and offered advice. He left my office with a smile on his face that I would see every time I saw him on the campus for the next two years, until he graduated."

In a 2000 talk to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which Jennings had started, he recalled that this student had been 15 years old, had met the older man in a bus station bathroom--for that was the only way he knew how to meet gay people--and that he (Jennings) had told him, "I hope you knew to use a condom." Jennings' best friend had died of AIDS the week before his chat with the student. According to Jennings, the student replied, "Why should I? My life isn't worth saving anyway."

The right is vilifying Jennings because he didn't tell the student's parents or the authorities that this closeted gay student was having sex with an older man. That is, he didn't out this student, who was clearly troubled by his inability to be open about his sexual orientation.

For several years, conservatives activists have been portraying this as a criminal matter, claiming Jennings aided and abetted statutory rape. In a 2004 letter to one of his right-wing detractors, Jennings' attorney maintained that the student in question at the time of this incident had actually been 16 years old--the age of consent in Massachusetts. But given that the student's identity remains unknown, there's no way to confirm or disprove that.

The real issue is, was Jennings' action at the time so egregious that now--two decades later, after he has established himself as a leading advocate of safe schools--he's unfit to be a public servant?

In 1988, it was harder to be gay than it is today--especially for a teacher and an adolescent. Conservatives who oppose gay rights generally don't display much sympathy for people who have to keep their homosexuality hidden--and don't show much concern for how that affects their lives. But I can imagine the difficult situation both Jennings and the student were in. The student needed a confidante, and Jennings had to worry about the students well-being, which included protecting his secret. (Had there not been so much anti-gay prejudice, of course, the two would not have been in these respective positions.) It's possible that Jennings helped save the kid's life by encouraging him to think about condoms. It's possible that outing the student may have led to terrible consequences. There's no telling. But only someone blinded by ideology would refuse to recognize that Jennings was contending with thorny circumstances. Perhaps he didn't make the right decision. It was a tough call. But the go-for-his-throat campaign being waged against Jennings is mean-spirited and fueled by an any-means-necessary partisanship.

In retrospect--and under attack--Jennings, naturally, has second thoughts about his actions. On Wednesday, in response to the conservative chest-thumping, he released a statement:

Twenty-one years later I can see how I should have handled this situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities. 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 & Drug Free Schools play a bigger role in helping to prepare teachers.

At the same time, Education Secretary Arne Duncan signaled that he has Jennings' back, with a statement of his own:

Kevin Jennings has dedicated his professional career to promoting school safety. He is uniquely qualified for his job and I'm honored to have him on our team.

Will Jennings survive the slurs and arrows from the right? Duncan's statement is an encouraging sign for him. Jones and Sergant were not afforded such support. But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, when asked about Jennings on Thursday, was less forceful than Duncan. He said, "I think the Department of Education had a statement on this. I would point you to that."

Gibbs then spoke in general terms about the conservative effort to tear down Obama appointees, an endeavor being waged by Fox News host Glen Beck and others:

I think it's a shame to watch what they do -- I think it's a shame -- I hope that as people watch, they'll match up some of the actual truth to what is being said on some of these occasions and start to provide a little reality check to some of what's going on.

After quickly caving on Jones and Sergant--who were hard to defend--will the Obama administration draw the line at Kevin Jennings? Or will it allow the blood-thirsty hound-dogs of the right another red-meat triumph? This is now a fight with consequences extending beyond who's handling safe school policy for President Obama.

UPDATE: Media Matters reports that it has obtained a copy of the driver's license of the student and that it shows the student was 16 years old at the time of this incident. The liberal media watchdog group has posted a redacted copy of the license here.

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