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The Attacks on ‘Safe School Czar’ Kevin Jennings Are Lame + Tired. But So Is Our Defense

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You don’t have to look far to find criticism of Kevin Jennings, the president’s “safe school czar.” Google his name and your first result is Tony Perkin’s op-ed “Kevin Jennings — Unsafe for America’s Schools.” Second result? “OBAMA APPOINTEE KEVIN JENNINGS: FISTING AND ‘[F–k] ‘em’ to the ‘Religious Right.'” Most of the spin, naturally, comes from right-wing conservatives, who claim Jennings’ homosexual activist agenda does not make America’s schools safer. And then there’s the incident where, as a closeted 24-year-old school teacher, his advice to a 15-year-old student who told Jennings he was having sex with an older man was to “use a condom” — and not, say, “stop having sex with him.” This has provided ample ammunition to attack Jennings and Obama. And Jennings’ defenders don’t exactly have the best defense argument.

The latest attack on Jennings arrives in the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper geared toward attacking progressives. In an editorial, the newspaper goes after Jennings, who in 2000 told the Iowa chapter of GLSEN about the 15-year-old named “Brewster”:

According to Mr. Jennings’ own description in a new audiotape discovered by Fox News, the 15-year-old boy met the “older man” in a “bus station bathroom” and was taken to the older man’s home that night. When some details about the case became public, Mr. Jennings threatened to sue another teacher who called his failure to report the statutory rape “unethical.” Mr. Jennings’ defenders asserted that there was no evidence that he was aware the student had sex with the older man.

However, the new audiotape contradicts this claim. In 2000, Mr. Jennings gave a talk to the Iowa chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group that promotes homosexuality in schools. On the tape, Mr. Jennings recollected that he told the student to make sure “to use a condom” when he was with the older man. That he actively encouraged the relationship is reinforced by Mr. Jennings’ own description in his 1994 book, “One Teacher in 10.” In that account, the teacher boasts how he allayed the student’s concerns about the relationship to such a degree that the 15-year-old “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.”

The Times goes after him for showing a lack of remorse. But the real source of the attacks, claims blogger and onetime Margaret Thatcher adviser David Hart, is Jennings’ sexuality. Says Hart: “The reason that they are attacking Jennings is simple; He is gay. Furthermore, the right wing is doing anything that they can to undermine President Obama. They ar[e] trying to get Obama to terminate Jennings as a desperate show of (waning) force.”

Okay, let’s try to get a little less generic:

The incident that the Washington Times cites occurred in 1989 when Jennings was 24 years old and a closeted high school teacher in Massachusetts. A 15 year-old teen, “Brewster,” confided in Jennings that he had sex with an older man in a bus depot restroom. The age of consent in Massachusetts is 16. Technically, Jennings had an obligation to notify law enforcement. Had he done so, he would have exposed the boy’s sexuality — keep in mind that this was 20 years ago. The teen would have been subjected to some very embarrassing questions like what he was doing at the depot in the first place. Furthermore, this would have undermined Jennings’ ability to get students to confide in him.It was a difficult judgment call.

[…] Ultimately, there is nothing “Problematic” about Mr. Jennings. Nor does this depict any flaws in the vetting process. Mr. Jennings graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He became a high school history teacher after graduation. He became the faculty advisor to the nation’s first gay-Straight Alliance. He was a Joseph Kingenstein Fellow at Columbia University, where he received his M.A. Kevin earned an M.B.A. from NYU’s Stern School of Business. He has authored six books and helped write and produce the documentary Out of the Past, which won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary. In his “spare time,” Kevin founded GLSEN.He is a highly accomplished individual who is entirely qulaified for the position he holds.

Alas, none of this qualifies as a reasonable defense. If Jennings “technically” had a legal obligation to report the incident, he should have. His CV is impressive, and sounds like it qualifies him for the “safe school czar” job under Obama. But it’s an insufficient answer to why, as a teacher to young people, he did not attempt to intervene to stop an underage boy from continuing an unhealthy sexual relationship — and keep that boy from becoming a victim.

And until he, or his supporters, can adequately answer that question, the attacks will keep coming. Actually, they will anyhow.