The New Right-Wing Attack Target: Kevin Jennings

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 7:32 AM EDT

After pursuing--and nailing--Van Jones and Yosi Sergant, the right-wing hit squad is now after Kevin Jennings, a Department of Education official in charge of the safe and drug-free schools. They claim Jennings aided and abetted statutory rape.

In his DailyPolitics.com column, David Corn reviews this latest conservative crusade. He writes:

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.

Corn notes that this was not a black-and-white situation:

In 1988, it was harder to be gay than it is today--especially for a teacher and an adolescent. Conservatives who oppose gay rights generally don't display much sympathy for people who have to keep their homosexuality hidden--and don't show much concern for how that affects their lives. But I can imagine the difficult situation both Jennings and the student were in. The student needed a confidante, and Jennings had to worry about the students well-being, which included protecting his secret. (Had there not been so much anti-gay prejudice, of course, the two would not have been in these respective positions.) It's possible that Jennings helped save the kid's life by encouraging him to think about condoms. It's possible that outing the student may have led to terrible consequences. There's no telling. But only someone blinded by ideology would refuse to recognize that Jennings was contending with thorny circumstances. Perhaps he didn't make the right decision. It was a tough call. But the go-for-his-throat campaign being waged against Jennings is mean-spirited and fueled by an any-means-necessary partisanship.

In response to the right-wing bleating, Jennings has released a statement saying that he can now 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 and guidance about this kind of thing." And Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated his support of Jennings: "He is uniquely qualified for his job and I'm honored to have him on our team."

The question is, will the White House back Duncan and Jennings on this? Or will the attack dogs of the right gain another bloody prize?

UPDATE: Media Matters reports that it has obtained a copy of the driver's license of the student and that it shows the student was 16 years old at the time of this incident. The liberal media watchdog group has posted a redacted copy of the license here.

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