Much has been said about Kevin Jennings, the gay safe school czar whose teaching career is coming back to haunt him twenty years later. Attacks from Limbaugh, Hannity, Dobbs, and Kilmeade were to be expected, since they take their talking points from conservative operatives, and Jennings’ offered up easy fare. But Jennings’ supporters, who point to his record fighting school bullying, aren’t exactly winning the messaging war with their defense. So how much damage is being done here?
First, let’s get a few things straight. Jennings’ controversy isn’t new: He’s previously written about and addressed in speeches the advice he gave to a 15-year-old student of his, who told Jennings he was having a sexual relationship with an older man. Also, the attacks on Jennings reek of homophobia. Pushed by anti-gay groups like the Family Research Council, Jennings has been in the crosshairs since Obama hired him.
(Here’s just a sampling. From Limbaugh: “[I]f you wonder why the libs are really ticked off that [director] Roman Polanski might be extradited to face the music on that long-ago act with the 13-year-old girl, Quaaludes and rape, understand that Obama’s safe school czar is a guy promoting homosexuality in the schools and encouraged a 15-year-old kid to have a homosexual relationship with an older man, and even facilitated it. As I say, Snerdley, I wasn’t even going to get to this today, but you asked me about Polanski, and that’s that.” And Hannity: “This is a guy that’s advocated promoting homosexuality in schools. This is a guy we have talked about his past. He’s had contempt for religion, et cetera, et cetera. … Isn’t the issue here that what they’re teaching oftentimes, value-wise, contradicts what parents are teaching? And isn’t that morally wrong?”)
But none of that changes this situation: Jennings failed to protect a student from a harmful relationship. But how much penance must he pay? He’s publicly acknowledged his error in judgment, and he’s arguably done plenty in his career — from founding GLSEN to his new job with Obama — to keep more kids safe than in harm’s way.
Jennings’ main problem, then, is not his past discrepancies, but whether his supporters and the White House can silence the right-wing attacks on him. We’ve already Obama’s green czar Van Jones resign because of controversy (where Republicans made themselves out to be the victims). Jennings’ situation sounds eerily familiar.