Safe and Drug Free Schools Head Under Fire
The Obama administration’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools director is facing criticism from conservatives for his admissions of past drug use and for failing to report an apparent incident of sexual contact between an adult and a minor two decades ago.
Fox News reported Sept. 23 that Kevin Jennings, a former teacher who was lauded for his work in preventing bullying and discrimination in the Massachusetts school system, is being criticized largely on the basis of statements he made in his 2007 autobiography, “Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son: A Memoir” and an earlier book, “One Teacher in 10.”
Jennings, who is gay and founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in Massachusetts, describes his experiences as a student and educator in the book. Critics say he mentioned his personal drug use four times in his writings, spoke in harsh terms about his personal relationship with God, and related an incident in which, as a teacher, he counseled a male student who approached him for advice on a relationship he was having with an adult male. Jennings did not report the incident to police.
“Jennings was obviously chosen for this job because of the safe schools aspect … defining ’safe schools’ narrowly in terms of ’safe for homosexuality’,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. “But at least half of the job involves creating drug-free schools, and we’ve not been offered any evidence about what qualifications Jennings has for promoting drug-free schools.”
“It would be nice to hear from Mr. Jennings … that he regrets the drug use he engaged in when he was in school,” Sprigg added. “But in this autobiography, which Mr. Jennings wrote only recently, he never expresses any regret about his youthful drug use.”
“We have had elected officials do [drugs] and we still believe it is fine for them to be elected,” replied Amanda Terkel of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank. “This is a point in his life that he was struggling … I think those experiences now help him reach out to students, relate to what they are going through, and help them through their problems.”
Jennings has faced criticism since at least 2004 for failing to report the apparent 1988 statutory-rape case to authorities, as he was legally obligated to do as a Massachusetts teacher. Fox News reported on Sept. 30 that Jennings stated that, “Twenty one years later I can see how I should have handled this situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities.”
“Teachers back then had little training or guidance about this kind of thing,” Jennings added. “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.”
Regarding his past drug use, Jennings stated: “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.”
Spriggs said that the statement came “more out of political necessity than it is about genuine remorse.” But Education Secretary Arne Duncan strongly defended Jennings’ work.
“Kevin Jennings has dedicated his professional career to promoting school safety,” Duncan said. “He is uniquely qualified for his job and I am honored to have him on our team.”