Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools: Who is Kevin Jennings?

Saturday, November 13, 2010
An outspoken advocate for homosexuals, as well as a writer and educator, Kevin Jennings has served since July 2009 as assistant deputy secretary to head the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the U.S. Department of Education. Founded in 2002, the Office administers drug and violence prevention programs for students in elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education.
Born May 8, 1963, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jennings was the youngest of five children to Chester Henry, an itinerant Southern Baptist preacher, and Alice Verna (Johnson) Jennings, who had only a grade-school education. His economically-disadvantaged family moved numerous times around the South while Jennings grew up, and he would eventually attend nine schools in four states. At the age of eight his father died while the family was living in a trailer park in Lewisville, North Carolina. He spent much of his adolescence in rural communities that hated African Americans and gay people; several of his cousins and uncles were in the Ku Klux Klan. 
He attended Paisley Magnet School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was beaten up by other students for his effeminate behavior. He tried to kill himself after discovering he was gay.
After he and his mother moved to Hawaii, Jennings graduated from Radford High School in Honolulu in 1981, and went on to become the first member of his family to graduate from college. He received his bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) in history from Harvard University, delivering the Harvard Oration at the 1985 commencement.
From 1985 to 1987, he was a high school history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island, then at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1987 to 1995. While at Concord Academy in 1988, he became the faculty advisor to the nation's first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
In 1990, Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a local volunteer group in the Boston area bringing together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and straight teachers, parents, students and community members who wanted to end anti-LGBT bias in the state’s K-12 schools.
In 1992, he was appointed by Governor William Weld (R-Massachusetts) to co-chair the education committee of the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. He was the principal author of its report, “Making Schools Safer for Gay and Lesbian Youth: Breaking the Silence in Schools and in Families,” whose recommendations were adopted as policy by the Massachusetts State Board of Education. The commission led the fight that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation and to establish, in 1993, a statewide program to ensure educational equity on issues of sexual orientation.
In 1993, Jennings was named a Joseph Klingenstein Fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College, from which he received his master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in education in 1994.
He subsequently left teaching to set about building the all-volunteer GLSEN organization into a national force. Under his leadership, GLSEN made safe schools into a national issue, increased by more than 600% the number of students protected from harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and grew the number of GSAs from under 50 in 1995 to more than 4,300 when he stepped down in 2008. Under Jennings’ leadership, GLSEN programs like No Name-Calling Week and Day of Silence were established in American schools.
Jennings earned an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business in 1999.
He has authored or edited six books, including Telling Tales Out of School: Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals Revisit Their School Days (2000), Always My Child: A Parent's Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered or Questioning Son or Daughter (2002) and Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son(2006). He also helped write and produce the documentary Out of the Past, which won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival audience award for best documentary.
Jennings serves on the boards of the Harvard Alumni Association and Union Theological Seminary. He is president of the board for the Tectonic Theater Project. He is the national fundraising chair for the Appalachian Community Fund, where he established the Alice Jennings Fund to help low-income and battered women.
In the fall of 2009, Jennings came under attack by social conservatives over a passage in a 1994 book he edited, One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories, in which he talked about giving condom advice to a 15-year-old student who was having a relationship with an adult male. Conservatives objected to his failure to notify the student’s parents or authorities about the illegal relationship. Jennings publicly expressed regret over the way he handled the matter many years earlier, and he remained in his job despite calls for his dismissal.
Jennings is a founding member of the New York City Gay Hockey Association and occasionally plays left wing for the Hotshots. In August 2005, he had a heart attack on the rink, but returned to the ice two years later.
He lives with his partner, Jeff Davis, the managing director of Global Equities Business Strategy at Barclays, and their three dogs.
-Noel Brinkerhoff


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