Jennings leaving, but says White House commitment stays

Kevin Jennings

Kevin Jennings, the openly gay head of the federal office that manages its largest safe-schools and anti-bullying programs, will be leaving the U.S. Department of Education next month. But Jennings said his departure is not about budget cuts to the programs and that both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remain committed to addressing the bullying of students who are, or are perceived to be, LGBT.

Jennings, who founded the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 1990 and led it until 2008, was seen as one of President Obama’s more important appointments for the LGBT community.

His selection as Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) in July 2009 was both hailed by the LGBT community and criticized by right-wing opponents who claimed he would promote a “homosexual agenda” in the nation’s classrooms.

Jennings announced his resignation May 19, saying that, at the end of July, he will become president and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Be the Change, a nonprofit organization that creates national, issue-based campaigns and coalitions. Its first campaign was instrumental in helping to draft, and have Congress pass, the 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expanded opportunities for national and community service.

But it is their new campaign, to promote economic opportunity for all Americans, which Jennings says addresses an issue “very, very close to my heart.”

“When this opportunity came along, I felt really strongly that this was the right thing for me to do at this point in my life,” he said. “I think that the issue of poverty in America is an outrage. . . . We are supposedly the land of opportunity and we need to take steps to make sure that’s actually true.”

Jennings said that, having grown up gay and poor, he has long wanted to do something for poor children as well as gay ones. He feels he has made “some real contributions” to the latter over the last 20 years, “and this is my chance to make a contribution on another issue that I care very deeply about.”

He has already had some impact in that arena. After Jennings’ mother died in 2002, he created the Alice Jennings Fund in her honor at the Appalachian Community Fund, to help low-income and battered girls and women have opportunities she did not have growing up in Appalachia.

Before Jennings leaves the Department of Education, however, he will be convening the first-ever federal summit on LGBT youth on June 6 and 7, at which both Education Secretary Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will speak.

Two hundred leaders, including 50 LGBT or allied youth, will be attending the summit, he said, to look at the needs of LGBT youth in three tracks: education, health and human services, and justice.

“It’s an unprecedented event,” he said. “The federal government . . . has never made the needs of LGBT youth a priority in this way before.”

“This is an administration that is committed to including LGBT youth as part of its work,” he said. “It’s a historic new direction.”

Jennings said he believes there has been significant progress towards addressing school bullying—of both LGBT students and others—under the Obama administration.

Jennings’ two years at the Department of Education coincided with an increased public awareness of the serious effects of school bullying. The week in April 2009 when the Obama administration offered him the position as head of OSDFS, news broke about the bullying-related suicide of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Massachusetts, who had been the subject of anti-gay taunts. That news, he said, inspired him to take the job.

And in October 2010, just days after a media blitz about the suicides of five teenagers, at least four of whom had been bullied for being gay or being perceived as gay, the department announced the awarding of $38.8 million in grants to 11 states from a new Safe and Supportive School program, to help measure and intervene in schools with the greatest safety concerns, including bullying.

Now, Jennings said, “We’ve put the full weight of the president behind this issue.”

The president convened a national Conference on Bullying Prevention in March 2011 and called on parents, teachers, students, and communities to tackle the problem together.

The president also recorded a video for the “It Gets Better” project, an initiative begun by syndicated columnist Dan Savage last September. The project’s Web site provides youth with examples of LGBT people and their allies who reassure them that life does get better after the difficult years in which most bullying takes place and encourages youth who are bullied to seek help from an adult.

In addition, the Department of Education issued guidance to all school officials in October 2010, reminding them that federal law requires schools to take action against bullying—including gender-based and sexual harassment of LGBT students.

It also issued a memo to all chief state school officers in December 2010, providing examples of effective state anti-bullying laws as a reference for developing or revising their own.

This fall, the Department of Education will convene its second Bullying Prevention Summit, a strategic planning gathering it first held last year for governmental and non-governmental leaders.

Results from two projects initiated at the first summit are expected to be reported on at the summit this fall. One is a survey of school districts that have an anti-bullying policy; the other a study, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on students who have died by suicide that was motivated by bullying.

“If my goal was to put a national spotlight on bullying and to galvanize a movement around that,” said Jennings, “I feel very much like we’ve succeeded.”

“There’s clearly work that remains to be done,” he said, but added, “I’m very confident about the President and [Secretary Duncan’s] commitment to keeping that work going.”

One Response to Jennings leaving, but says White House commitment stays

  1. John says:

    Since funds have been cut even before they were approved and since Jennings is leaving (perhaps because he has no funds to work with?) perhaps some journalist might actually ask the White House exactly what the word ‘committed’ means?

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