Big surprise, you elect a liberal president, you get liberal cabinet secretaries who in turn appoint liberal people to their departments. I can’t say I was surprised that Education Secretary Arne Duncan appointed Kevin Jennings, founder of GLSEN and co-chair of LGB fundraising for Barack Obama to be the assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools inside the Department of Education.
That said, I am concerned about this appointment. While in recent years I have warmed to the reasonable objectives of GLSEN which include violence prevention, I am not convinced that Mr. Jennings is the guy for this position. As a backdrop for my concerns about his views, readers should read the 2005 paper, Remembering Brewster.
In this paper, I note that Jennings told two different stories about an encounter with a student, Brewster, at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. In 2004, Mr. Jennings was accused by then chair of the NEA Republican Educators Caucus, Diane Lenning, of failing to report a potential abuse situation involving Brewster. At the time, Mr. Jennings denied the allegation and demanded via detailed letter from his lawyer that Mrs. Lenning retract the accusations. On point, the letter read:
Nowhere in the book does Mr. Jennings state he understood that the student was being abused or victimized, or that he suffered injury from any abuse, or indeed that the student was even having sex.
She never retracted and he never sued.
Later, I was given a tape of a 2000 lecture by Mr. Jennings discussing Brewster. He was speaking to a GLSEN rally in Iowa. In that lecture, he indicated that Brewster was involved in sexual behavior of some kind. After being informed that Brewster was not in class, Jennings went to find him in his room. Here is the relevant part of the talk (click link for the mp3 – you might have to turn up the volume):
And I said, “Brewster, what are you doing in there asleep?” And he said, “Well, I’m tired.” And I said, “Well we all are tired and we all got to school today.” And he said, “Well I was out late last night.” And I said, “What were you doing out late on a school night.” And he said, “Well, I was in Boston…” Boston was about 45 minutes from Concord. So I said, “What were you doing in Boston on a school night Brewster?” He got very quiet, and he finally looked at me and said, “Well I met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.” High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people. I was a closeted gay teacher, 24 years old, didn’t know what to say. Knew I should say something quickly so I finally said, “My best friend had just died of AIDS the week before.” I looked at Brewster and said, “You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.” He said to me something I will never forget, He said “Why should I, my life isn’t worth saving anyway.”
If Jennings did not believe he was sexually active, then why advise him to use a condom? His handling of this incident, subsequence defense and alternate stories about it concern me. I have posted this story twice before on this blog and most commenters gay, straight, conservative or liberal agree that such an incident should be reported. I watched him refuse to answer reporter George Archibald’s question about the incident on the floor of the NEA exhibit hall. I do not think he has ever addressed the discrepancies in the accounts. I emailed GLSEN to ask for a comment in 2005 with no reply.
I may be misunderstood with this post. Let me be clear: the sexual orientation of the teacher and/or the student are not relevant to the need to get the parents, school and possibly the authorities involved in helping a troubled student in the situation Jennings described. Also, I am not disputing that GLSEN has appropriately raised awareness about bullying of GLB students; a problem which needs ongoing attention. However, I do wish the point person for school safety was someone with an unambiguous record on school-parent communication. If Mr. Jennings had said something like – ‘hey, that was a rookie mistake, I should have alerted someone about a depressed 15 year old boy being 45 minutes away from his boarding school without permission having sex, perhaps with an adult,’ then I would not have quite the same reaction. Instead, he denied what he earlier acknowledged and threatened to sue.
UPDATE: Some have asked me to verify Jennings position as fund raiser for Obama. Here is a video with Jennings and co-chair Joan Garry introducing Bill Clinton at an Obama fundraiser.
Jennings refers to Brewster as Robertson in his 2006 memoir. In it he acknowledges the young man was in need of safe sex advice.