Conservatives Criticize Obama Safe-Schools Czar

President Obama's safe-schools czar has become a target for conservative activists who point to his past writings about drug use and homosexuality. But Kevin Jennings' supporters say he is the victim of a right-wing smear campaign.

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Another official in President Obama's administration is facing strong criticism from conservatives. Kevin Jennings works for the Department of Education. He's head of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, and conservatives have accused him of being a radical.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: The controversy started a month after Kevin Jennings was appointed to the senior staff of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Jennings helps develop anti-drug and anti-violence policy for schools. Jennings bio touts his two decades of experience in the fields of education and civil rights. It also notes his founding of GLSEN - the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - which fights against discrimination based on sexual orientation in schools. It was the conservative Family Research Council that first launched a campaign against Jennings, says senior fellow Peter Sprigg.

PETER SPRIGG: President Obama has named probably three dozen openly gay people to his administration, and we haven't responded to any of them the way we have to Kevin Jennings. He has a uniquely extreme and radical record in our opinion.

KEYES: Sprigg sights many issues with Jennings, from Jennings' failure forcefully disavow past drug use, to his handling of a 1988 conversation with a high school student. In one of his six books, Jennings wrote that the male student reported going home with a man he met in a bus station bathroom. Jennings told the student he hoped the teen had used a condom. Again, Peter Sprigg.

SPRIGG: He didn't tell the boy that maybe he shouldn't be having sex at age 15, he didn't tell him that maybe he shouldn't be seeking sex partners in the bus station restroom. And he should've understood, even though he was a young teacher, that just wearing a condom was not enough to protect a boy in this kind of situation.

SEAN HANNITY: I want him fired. I think he's inappropriate.

KEYES: Sean Hannity, of Fox News, is among those in the media who have joined the Family Research Council's anti-Jennings campaign. The Education Department refused to make Jennings available for interview. But organizations like Media Matters, which spokesman Chris Harris says corrects what it calls conservative misinformation, are defending Jennings.

CHRIS HARRIS: Contrary to what they're claiming, the adolescent who asked him for advice was not 15, he was 16, which is and was the age of consent in Massachusetts. And Jennings himself has admitted that this happened 21 years ago and he should've handled it differently. And he should've consulted legal and medical authorities.

KEYES: The student in question issued a statement to Media Matters praising Jennings. Over at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the organization Jennings founded in 1990, Executive Director Eliza Byard vehemently defends his efforts to make schools safe for all students.

ELIZA BYARD: It's important that we not allow this kind of dialog to completely subsume all efforts to do good. How can we expect any dedicated people to accept positions in public service if this is what they can expect?

KEYES: But Media Matters' Harris has said similar tactics have worked before. Former White House environmental advisor Van Jones stepped down in September after conservatives, including the Family Research Council, attacked him as a leftist who sidestepped the vetting process for White House appointees. The FRC says it will keep targeting other appointees who are, in their words, out of step with the majority of Americans.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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