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Sworn to Protect and Defend

TC alumnus Kevin Jennings is the President's choice to make schools safer
Every day, Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, wears a button with a picture on it of a student who died as a result of school-related violence.
“I’m wearing one today of Joseph Walker Hoover, a sixth grader in Springfield, Massachusetts, who was repeatedly bullied,” said Jennings, reached by phone one morning this past August. “His mom confronted the school but couldn’t get action. One night she knocked on his room door, and he’d hung himself.
“I have way too many of these buttons—enough to wear a different one every day. I wear them to remind myself and everyone else that we’re talking about human beings. We tend to forget that when we get enmeshed in policy debate.”
Since his appointment early this summer, Jennings—a TC alumnus and former teacher who founded the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network—has been enmeshed in that debate as never before. His viewpoint is unequivocal:
“Parents ask two questions each morning. ‘Is my child going to be safe?’ and ‘Is my child going to learn?’ And the first question precedes the second, because if a kid doesn’t feel safe at school, he or she can’t learn.” There are “tons of statistics,” he says, showing that safety is the single most important factor in any learning environment. “So my job is to make sure students can focus on conjugating verbs or learning geometry instead of worrying about getting teased or beaten up
or killed.”
Those are worries with which Jennings himself is all too familiar.
“At the beginning of tenth grade, I refused to go back to school because I was bullied so relentlessly,” Jennings says. “And I was an excellent academic student. Fortunately, I had a very determined mother who wanted me to get the education she didn’t have. She fought the system until I got transferred to a safer school. But so many kids do not have advocates like that or that kind of relationship with a parent.”
In ninth grade, Jennings had told a school counselor what was happening, but the counselor didn’t believe him.
“Most kids don’t ever report being bullied,” he says. “Sixty percent of gay, lesbian, bi and trans-gendered kids don’t tell when they’re bullied because they don’t think anyone will do anything about it. That’s what we have
to change, because the idea that there are children in America who’d rather die than go to school should be a national scandal.”
Fifteen years ago, Jennings came to Teachers College—as a Fellow at the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Education—expressly to work on this issue. “My proposal was about understanding the process of school change and developing tools to implement and measure it,” he says. “One of my professors was Linda Darling-Hammond, who said that change is a process, not an event. Well, we need to get that process going around school climate. Right now, people still think, ‘Walk through a metal detector and you’ve solved the problem.’ But it’s much more complex than that.”
Bullying itself is a deep-rooted problem that defies Band-Aid interventions.
“Bullying, gangs—it’s all on a continuum,” Jennings says. “The kids who do these things are similar, whether they’re bullies or school shooters. They’re all on the margins. Virtually every school shooter was a victim of bullying who was socially marginalized and is lashing out. They have high rates of absenteeism, truancy. So you’ve got to identify them early and reconnect them to school, because by middle school, gangs are recruiting them.”
No, schools can’t fix the dysfunctional families
that many marginalized kids come from—but they can create substitutes. “You’ve got to have longer days and years. We know kids with healthy, connected relationships to responsible adults don’t end up doing these awful things.”
And yes, standards must be part of the picture, too. “We’ve got to hold schools accountable for improving their climate around safety, just as we do with reading and math scores. The way we measure school safety now is completely ineffective. It relies on reports, mainly by adults, of incidents of violence, but a lot of stuff happens out of sight of teachers. The current system also motivates adults to lie, in order to avoid having their schools labeled unsafe. We need to talk to the kids themselves.”

Jennings points to Chicago, where—thanks to a program pioneered by his new boss, education secretary Arne Duncan, when Duncan was running that city’s school system—parents can go online to compare student survey data on safety for any school in the city.
But there are still deeper roots to school violence that even Jennings admits are daunting.
“One problem we have in this country is that kids can get their hands on guns so easily,” he says. “More kids get shot here than in the next 26 industrialized countries combined. So you might punch someone in Sweden, but in the U.S., you’re much more likely to shoot them.”

Jennings wants to educate gun owners that denying kids access to weapons is “a child welfare issue.”
“A lot of tragedies could be prevented,” he says. “It’s a shame that too often politics gets in the way of doing what we know will keep kids safe.”

Published Friday, Dec. 4, 2009