Kevin Jennings: The Latest Embattled Appointee


First there were the tax problems that led Tom Daschle, and others, to withdraw before the administration even took effect; then there was Green Jobs Czar Van Jones and his affiliation with 9/11 truthers; then there was National Endowment for the Arts Communications Director Yosi Sergant, who allegedly sought to recruit artists to create pro-Obama works.

Now there is Kevin Jennings, director of the Education Dept.'s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools--who has come under attack for, in his young teaching days, counseling a 15-year-old 16-year-old* student who sought advice on a homosexual relationship with an older man--the latest Obama appointee to receive an onslaught of conservative criticism, including calls for his job.

Politics Daily's David Corn sums it up:

So what did Jennings do?

In a 1994 book, he recounted his experience as an in-the-closet gay teacher at a private school, and he described a 1988 episode in which a male high school sophomore confided to him his involvement with an older man. Jennings was 24 years old then, and as he wrote, "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."

In a 2000 talk to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which Jennings had started, he recalled that this student had been 15 years old, had met the older man in a bus station bathroom--for that was the only way he knew how to meet gay people--and that he (Jennings) had told him, "I hope you knew to use a condom." Jennings' best friend had died of AIDS the week before his chat with the student. According to Jennings, the student replied, "Why should I? My life isn't worth saving anyway."

The right is vilifying Jennings because he didn't tell the student's parents or the authorities that this closeted gay student was having sex with an older man. That is, he didn't out this student, who was clearly troubled by his inability to be open about his sexual orientation.

Jennings has released a statement that now, 21 years later, he sees that he should have handled the situation differently. Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a statement of support for his employee.

Jennings faces criticism not only from conservative pundits, but from the social-conservative establishment as well: the Family Research Council released a statement on Tuesday alleging that "Jennings has shown a disregard for parental rights and for our children's well being, yet he is the President's choice to keep our schools safe!  Safe for sexual predators it would seem!"

The embattled appointee seems to enjoy more backing from the administration than his fallen predecessors. We'll see if the calls for a resignation escalate, and whether he withstands them.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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