Head of Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools Expresses Regret for Controversial Incident

Sep 30, 2009 3:58pm

A senior official of the Department of Education expressed regret today for an incident that happened when he was a young teacher in the late 1980s, saying he should have handled it differently, but that society could benefit from his error.

Kevin Jennings, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools and founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), has been criticized by social conservatives for a passage in his 1994 book “One Teacher In Ten.” At the time, only a few people knew that Jennings, then a 24-year-old teacher at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, was gay. In the Spring of 1988, a young woman who knew Jennings was gay, brought to his office a high school sophomore whom Jennings called “Brewster” in the book.

As Jennings wrote:

“’Brewster has something he needs to talk with you about,’ she intoned ominously. Brewster squirmed at the prospect of telling, and we sat silently for a short while. On a hunch, I suddenly asked ‘What’s his name?’ Brewster’s eyes widened briefly, and then out spilled a story about his involvement with an older man he had met in Boston. 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.”

Jennings in 2000 told a GLSEN conference that Brewster told him he “’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, 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.’”

That Jennings knew of a sexually active minor, of any gender, involved with “an older man” and didn’t take steps to report that relationship to the student’s parents or to authorities has made him a target for criticism – long before he was put in charge of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

In July 2004, before Jennings was about to receive the National Education Association’s Virginia Uribe Human Rights Award, Diane Lenning, head of the NEA’s Republican Educators Caucus, protested, suggesting that Jennings “did not report sexual victimization of a student to the proper authorities” and asked "Is it a good idea for NEA to honor as exemplary a teacher who engages in unethical practice?"

Jennings today issued a statement saying, “Twenty-one years later I can see how I should have handled the 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 and Drug Free Schools play a bigger role in helping to prepare teachers.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement today supporting his colleague, saying “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.”

Administration officials point out that Jennings has received accolades from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Independent Schools, the National Education Association, and the Massachusetts Counselors Association, and he has been named to a commission by former Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

In July, the conservative Family Research Council launched a “Stop Jennings” campaign in which they seized upon not just that one incident with Brewster, but other comments from his past. The liberal Think Progress has issued a fact check of what they call a “right-wing smear campaign” against him by those who oppose homosexuality.

Today’s statement is a departure from the posture Jennings took in 2004, when he protested Lenning’s campaign against him, saying that the “comments and accusations made by Diane Lenning regarding my career while I served as a teacher at Concord Academy were not only personally hurtful but inaccurate and potentially libelous."

It has also been noted that the new head of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools wrote, in his 2007 autobiography, "Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son: A Memoir,” that in his high school years he “got stoned more often and went out to the beach at Bellows, overlooking Honolulu Harbor and the lights of the city, to drink with my buddies on Friday and Saturday nights, spending hours watching the planes take off and land at the airport, which is actually quite fascinating when you are drunk and stoned."

Jennings today said: "I have written about the factors that have led me to use drugs as a teen.  This experience qualifies me to help students and teachers who are confronting these issues today.”

– jpt

UPDATE: CNN's Jessica Yellin has spoken to "Brewster," who says despite Jennings' recounting of the story, he was 16 at the time, which was then the age of consent in Massachusetts, and further he was not sexually active at the time.

"Since I was of legal consent at the time, the fifteen minute conversation I had with Mr. Jennings twenty-one years ago is of nobody's concern but his and mine," Brewster tells her. "However, since the Republican noise machine is so concerned about my 'well-being' and that of America's students, they'll be relieved to know that I was not 'inducted' into homosexuality, assaulted, raped, or sold into sexual slavery."

Brewster says, "In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a sixteen year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence."

He adds, "I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation's students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings' courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I'd be the proud gay man that I am today."

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