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.”

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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.”

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Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Programs for Native Hawaiians

The U.S. Department of Education will award a pair of grants to support school-based prevention programs aimed at Native Hawaiian youth.


The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) Programs for Native Hawaiians is open to organizations primarily serving and representing Native Hawaiians for the benefit of Native Hawaiians (defined as any individual whose ancestors were natives, prior to 1778, of the area that now comprises the state of Hawaii).


Funds may be used to plan, conduct, and administer programs to prevent or reduce violence, the use, possession and distribution of illegal drugs, or delinquency. A total of $579,518 is available. Application deadline is July 30.


For more information, see the full grant announcement (PDF).

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Safe and Drug-Free Schools Funding Threatened

The Bush administration and House Republican leaders are under fire for attempting to dilute the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools (SDFS) program by rolling it into a block grant with youth-oriented after-school programs.

President Bush's flagship education bill, H.R. 1 (dubbed the “No Child Left Behind” act), calls for combining the Education Department's SDFS program with the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school programs for youth. The House version of the legislation also would eliminate the 20 percent of SDFS' currently set aside to be spent at the discretion of state governors.

In the Senate, the companion Better Education for Students and Teachers (BEST) legislation — which, like H.R. 1, reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — does not call for combining SDFS and the after-school program, and maintains the 20 percent set-aside. Floor amendments or changes during a House/Senate conference committee are still possible, however.

Led by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH), supporters of combining the two grant programs said the change would give state and local officials more flexibility in funding anti-drug, anti-violence, and after-school programs. But Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) says that combining the programs would have a “devastating impact” on community-based anti-violence and alcohol and other drug prevention programs.

“School-based drug and violence prevention and before- and after-school programs are both important components of effective, comprehensive community prevention systems, and should not be combined or pitted against each other,” CADCA asserted in a recent policy alert.

The City of Vallejo (Calif.) Fighting Back Partnership, a CADCA member, works with both SDFS programs and after-school programs funded through the 21st Century Community Learning Initiative. Jane Callahan, executive director of Vallejo Fighting Back, says that both are critical, yet distinct, components of her community web of youth services.

“21st Century Community Learning is a wonderful program used to fund after-school programs with a focus on improving academic performance, particularly for the most needy schools. We all agree the it would be nice to have the program at as many schools as possible,” says Callahan. “But if you mix them up with Safe and Drug-Free Schools, it's like apples and oranges.”

However, Education Secretary Rod Paige recently told the House Budget Committee, “The new, streamlined grants would reduce administrative burdens, give school districts greater flexibility in developing programs that address school safety — a major concern of parents and students alike — and support improved academic achievement.”

“Participating states would be required to develop a definition of a 'persistently dangerous school,' to report on school safety on a school-by-school basis, and to offer both victims of school-based crimes and students attending unsafe schools options for transferring to safer schools,” said Paige. “The President also would expand the role of faith-based and community organizations in after-school programs.”

In his March 13 remarks before Congress, Paige referred to the creation of “separate State formula grants” for SDFS and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Field experts tell Join Together that this may indicate a compromise by the administration whereby both programs would fall under one funding umbrella, but still exist as separate budget line-items.

Sue Thau, public-policy consultant for CADCA, says that such a scenario would be better than simply merging the two programs, but would still force school-based prevention programs and after-school programs to compete for funding.

Thau notes that while some after-school programs include prevention services, they are not interchangeable with the universal prevention programming funded under the current SDFS program. Advocates also fear that, given the opportunity, schools might shift funds away from substance-abuse programs whether they are needed or not. “Local school districts are in great denial when it comes to drug issues,” says Thau.

Thau also points out that the anti-drug focus of SDFS already has been diluted by the Clinton administration's decision to allow anti-violence programs to compete for funding. Throwing SDFS into the same pot as after-school programs would just water anti-drug funding down further, she said.

As for the Governor's set-aside, CADCA points out that this money is used to fund community mobilization efforts and community coalitions, as opposed to the formula portion of the SDFS program, which is devoted to school-based programs. More than 2,000 community anti-drug coalitions are presently funded with the governor's set-aside, CADCA said.

Callahan agrees that one danger of mixing the funds is that schools might choose to throw all of their money at after-school programs. Another is that, with fewer restrictions on spending, districts may be even more tempted than they are now to use the money to fill holes in their budget, rather than tailoring services to achieve the goal of raising drug-free kids, she said.

The Bush administration's proposal would hurt current 21st Century recipients as well as SDFS recipients, adds Callahan. By changing the competitive 21st Century grant program to a formula grant, the administration likely would end up taking money away from more needy schools and increase the funding available to more well-off districts. One of the major complaints about the formula-based SDFS program, she notes, is that the money is spread so thin. “Just as people argue that most districts don't get enough SDFS money to do anything much with, you'll have the same thing on the 21st Century side,” Callahan predicts.

There's nothing wrong with increasing local control over government spending, Callahan stresses; in fact, she goes as far as saying that community coalitions like Fighting Back can play a critical role in local decision-making on funding.

But Callahan says that truly decentralizing government spending should entail all government programs, not just a handful, and keep local money in local communities rather than funneling it through the federal government.

Short of that, she says, the advantage of categorical funding programs like SDFS is that it “increases the likelihood that the money will be spent on prevention.”

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