Federal safe schools office bumped down the org chart

The U.S. Department of Education office once headed by openly gay appointee Kevin Jennings and charged with helping with efforts to stop bullying and harassment of students, including LGBT youth, is now gone–a victim of drastic federal budget cuts.

The U.S. Department of Education office once headed by openly gay appointee Kevin Jennings and charged with helping with efforts to stop bullying and harassment of students, including LGBT youth, is now gone–a victim of drastic federal budget cuts.

The Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which manages the Education department’s largest safe-schools and anti-bullying programs, has been renamed the Office of Safe and Healthy Students. It has been relocated to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and moved one step down on the organizational hierarchy, according Education Week June 20.

Kevin Jennings, the openly gay head of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, left his position two weeks ago to take a position in the private sector. But he and other LGBT advocates say the Obama administration’s commitment to protecting LGBT youth remains strong.

The mission of the new Office of Safe and Healthy Students, said Education Department Deputy Secretary Tony Miller, will be to “maximize limited resources, while preserving our program focus.”

Jennings, before he left, said the FY 11 budget for his office had been slashed by more than 25 percent from FY 10—from $393 million to $288 million. And the FY 10 numbers were themselves down from $690 million in 2009, the last year of the George W. Bush administration.

Jennings said that, despite the cuts by Congress, “This is an administration that is committed to including LGBT youth as part of its work” and that he’s “very confident about the President and [Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s] commitment to keeping that work going.”

Daryl Presgraves, a spokesperson for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), one of the LGBT organizations that has worked most closely with Jennings’ former office, said it remains to be seen what the impact of the organizational change will have on that office’s work to address anti-LGBT bullying in schools.

“We hope the Department of Education and Obama Administration are making the best of a situation beyond their control,” said Presgraves.

He also noted that GLSEN has also been working actively with a number of other federal departments and offices on initiatives to create safer schools for LGBT students. They include the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Justice, and the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education.

On June 17, for example, the Department of Adolescent and School Health at HHS’s U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) granted GLSEN a $285,000 annually renewable grant to increase the percentage of schools that identify and maintain “safe spaces” for LGBT youth.

“GLSEN will carefully monitor the full breadth of the federal government’s engagement on the critical issues of school climate, culture, safety and health to ensure that this does not reflect a weakening commitment,” Presgraves said.

And Michael Cole-Schwarz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization has seen “no signs that the Department of Education is backing down on their tremendous commitment to addressing anti-LGBT bullying in schools.”

He noted the first-ever federal summit on LGBT youth held by the department, on June 6 and 7.

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

He announced his resignation May 19, saying that, at the end of July, he would become president and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Be the Change, a nonprofit organization that creates national, issue-based campaigns and coalitions, and is launching a new campaign to address poverty in America. Jennings said his departure was not about budget cuts to his office.

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