Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

School safety advocates praise DOE pick


GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings has been appointed to a post in the federal Department of Education. Photo: Courtesy GLSEN
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Advocates for LGBT student safety received a hopeful boost recently when U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the appointment of Kevin Jennings to be assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Jennings, 46, is the former executive director of the national Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, the organization he founded in 1990 that works to make schools safe for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. He stepped down from GLSEN last summer.

His appointment to the administration of President Barack Obama is being praised by advocates of school safety, but decried by anti-gay groups.

Candace Gingrich, youth and campus outreach senior manager for the Human Rights Campaign and the out lesbian half-sister of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said she's "probably" known Jennings since he started GLSEN.

Gingrich said Jennings's appointment is "wonderful."

"We've seen the effects of anti-LGBT harassment on young people, and we know that for too many of them, schools are not safe places, and to have someone with Kevin's experience, with his knowledge and with his passion at that level" is a testament that this is an issue the Obama administration cares about, said Gingrich.

"Having Kevin there means that when there's the opportunity to address specifically anti-queer harassment, that it will get done," she said. Gingrich said she "can't even fathom" that in the George W. Bush administration "anyone would have mentioned anything about queer youth when it came to educational issues."

Gingrich said among Jennings's accomplishments are GLSEN's school climate survey. With the survey, she said, the prevalence of the words "faggot" and "dyke" as epithets went from being anecdotal "to something that's actually documented."

Also, Gingrich said, "the fact that there are now over 4,000 gay-straight alliances is a very powerful testament to Kevin, and to GLSEN's credit."

Jennings became the faculty advisor to the nation's first gay-straight alliance at Concord Academy in Massachusetts in 1988, according to his Web site.

Jennings, whose Web site says he has been with his partner Jeff Davis for 15 years, declined to be interviewed for this article, noting that he doesn't start his job until July 6 and that he doesn't feel ready to do interviews "quite yet."

"I'd rather wait and find the bathroom at the DOE first," he wrote in an e-mail to the Bay Area Reporter.

But if Jennings won't talk yet, there are others who are happy to talk about him.

Carolyn Laub, founder and executive director of California's Gay-Straight Alliance Network, said she's known Jennings for over 10 years.

"I think it's great news for the LGBT safe schools movement to have someone of Kevin's prominence as a leader" in the movement "to be working inside the administration," said Laub.

Laub said that while she hopes Jennings is able to address LGBT issues specifically in his new job, "he obviously has many other issues important to young people in schools," such as addressing violence and drug and alcohol use, issues that also impact LGBT and other youth.

Laub indicated that recently proposed federal safe schools legislation is something she'd like to see succeed in the Obama administration.

In the wake of two 11-year-old boys hanging themselves in separate incidents in Massachusetts and Georgia, apparently in reaction to repeated bullying because they were thought to be gay, Representative Linda Sanchez (D-California) introduced legislation in May to help prevent bullying and harassment.

Politics and other factors will influence what kind of legislation or financial resources may exist, said Laub, noting there's been a "very negative right-wing response" to Jennings's appointment.

One of the groups opposing Jennings's appointment is Americans for Truth. The group has included photos and videos on their Web site from an LGBT youth march in Massachusetts where kids held hands, carried signs, and shouted slogans like, "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Homophobia's got to go!"

Americans For Truth urges people to contact Duncan and "urge him to withdraw Jennings's appointment," or contact Obama and members of Congress.

 "We don't want radical, anti-Christian bigots who push destructive sexual behaviors and identities on our youth setting policies affecting America's schoolchildren," the site says.

Peter LaBarbera, Americans for Truth's founder and president, told the B.A.R. that he "absolutely" supports safety for LGBT and other students.

"We're against all abuse of any kid ... we just think you can do it without promoting an agenda," said LaBarbera.

 Asked by the B.A.R. during an April 24 conference call on an unrelated topic what specific plans he has to make schools safer for LGBT and other students, Duncan said teaching tolerance and "creating climates that are inclusive" are "critically important."

"I want to do whatever I can to foster environments that are not harm-filled," where students can "not be threatened, not be bullied" and students are "not only comfortable but where they can be very, very successful academically," added Duncan.

More support

Gingrich said she's confident that the efforts to undo Jennings's nomination are going to "come up empty."

Debra Chasnoff, executive director and senior producer for San Francisco-based GroundSpark, which has developed films and educational programs addressing bullying and other issues, also expressed support.

"I think the president surely knew who Kevin was and is making a very strong statement that when we talk about all students doing well in school, that includes students that may happen to be gay or lesbian, that it includes students who get harassed because they don't conform to gender stereotypes, and that it includes students ... who have gay or lesbian family members," said Chasnoff, who met Jennings in 1992. "Up until now, there's been no federal signal that those students are cared about and need to be included in our school curriculum."

"What are they doing to prevent the suicides and violent attacks against youth who are harassed because they're gay or perceived to be gay?" Chasnoff asked about the anti-gay groups. "I hope it doesn't take a suicide in every classroom in this country before these right-wing organizations stop diverting our attention from what we need to do to make sure all children are safe at school."

Nathan Boltseridge, a board member of Friends of GLBT Youth, which helped with the march shown on Americans for Truth's site, said that as far as he knows, Jennings doesn't have anything to do with the annual march, which usually draws about 1,000 youths, although GLSEN is "sometimes involved" in planning events.

Boltseridge, noting LGBT youths' "alarmingly elevated risk" for suicide, said events like the march allow kids "to celebrate their identities and be themselves in a non-threatening and positive environment."

He said he'd love to say Americans for Truth's stance on the march is "shocking, but I've been doing this for a number of years now. It no longer shocks me, but I do find it profoundly disappointing."

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