political defense

Does It Matter If Kevin Jennings Counseled a 16-Year Old Student?

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Everyone knows the best offense is a good defense. So when it comes to safe school czar Kevin Jennings, accusations that some twenty years ago he foolishly advised a 15-year-old student not to end a sexual relationship with an older man are being countered with this: the boy was actually 16, putting him over the legal age of consent! Surely that clears Jennings of any wrongdoing, right?!

The student in question (now a grown man) is identified only by his first name Brewster. And even he is coming to Jennings’ defense, providing the left-wing media watchdog website Media Matters with a statement and a copy of his driver’s license to prove he was 16 at the time he sought Jennings’ council. (Jennings has acknowledged he told the boy only to be sure to use a condom with the older man, but did not advise the student to terminate the relationship.) And because Media Matters is in the business of shooting down right-wing attacks (it’s good sport on this website, too!), there’s also this hilarious Facebook exchange between Fox News producer Maxim Lott and Brewster on Friday, which amounts to the cable channel trying to confirm “rumors” about Brewster’s age, when it already reported he was 15. (Queerty has also reported Brewster was 15 at the time, citing other media reports.)

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So now that we’ve established Brewster was 16 in 1988 when his conversation with Jennings took place, is Obama’s underling off the hook? Of course not. Jennings will forever be the guy who told a high school student how he should carry on a relationship with an older man. (He’s acknowledged his foolish advice.) Even though Brewster met the age of consent for Massachusetts, we still have a situation where Jennings, given the opportunity to keep a teenager safe from an older man clearly preying on him, chose not to.

When it comes to young people, age of consent laws are best applied are best used to ensure teenagers cannot be criminally prosecuted when they have sex with each other. (Read: Two 16-year-olds should not have to register as sex offenders if their parents catch them in the act.) But as a school teacher, Jennings owed Brewster a bit more responsible advice than “use a condom” with an older man. (The age of Brewster’s lover has, curiously, never been reported. Was he 30? 60?)

Jennings has apologized, and that’s as much as he can do. But now we’re squabbling over technicalities: Because Brewster was 16 at the time, Jennings is now off the hook?

Please. If Jennings were a safe school czar under President George W. Bush, and straight, Olbermann & Co. would be dumping on him any chance they got, and we would be cheering them along. Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate behavior, especially with young people. Jennings failed on that front, no question. But should it cost him his career? Probably not.

The attacks from the right, however, will not end there. His critics are not satisfied, and it’s arguable that Jennings still faces criticism because he’s an out gay man. If he were a straight guy, would Hannity and Limbaugh be going after him so forcefully? Maybe, given they did so with green czar Van Jones. Working for Obama is the ultimate scarlet letter to the right, which, in fact, works to Jennings’ benefit: He can brush this off as merely a misguided attack from the right, and not a substantive argument about his job qualifications.