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Ex-pupil defends Obama aide over controversial advice in 1988

  • Story Highlights
  • Conservative groups say Kevin Jennings condoned statutory rape, molestation
  • Jennings said advice to student in 1988 could have been done "differently"
  • Student to CNN: "I was not 'inducted' into homosexuality ...or sold into sexual slavery"
  • "Brewster": If not for Jennings, "I doubt I'd be the proud gay man that I am today"
By Jessica Yellin
CNN National Political Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A former student of an Obama Administration official is coming to his defense, as critics seek to use a 20-year-old incident to call for the official's resignation.

Kevin Jennings, who heads the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, is under fire for counseling advice he gave a teenage gay student more than two decades ago.

Conservative groups charge that Jennings, who is openly gay, condoned statutory rape and child molestation. That's in reference to an incident in 1988 when Jennings, who was a teacher at the time, did not tell authorities that a 16-year-old student revealed to Jennings that he'd had sex with an older man.

Now that former student is speaking out for the first time and telling CNN he did not have sex with that man at all. He did not elaborate on what he told Jennings at the time. Jennings could not be reached for comment late Friday.

In a statement obtained by CNN, the former student, who wanted to be called Brewster, wrote: "Since I was of legal consent at the time, the 15-minute conversation I had with Mr. Jennings 21 years ago is of nobody's concern but his and mine. However, since the Republican noise machine is so concerned about my 'well-being' and that of America's students, they'll be relieved to know that I was not 'inducted' into homosexuality, assaulted, raped, or sold into sexual slavery."

The former student recounted what happened at the time and maintained there was no sexual contact.

"In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a 16-year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence."

"Brewster" also lashed out at the critics who have used the incident to attack Jennings.

"I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation's students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings' courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I'd be the proud gay man that I am today."

Critics contend that Brewster was 15 at the time of the incident. But CNN has obtained a copy of Brewster's driver's license which verifies he was 16 at the time. The legal age of consent for sexual activities in Massachusetts is 16.

Jennings, who has published several books, has written and spoken about the incident. In one book he writes that when he was a 24-year-old teacher, a gay student confided that he'd had sex with an older man. Jennings didn't report the incident to authorities. Instead he writes, "I listened, sympathized, and offered advice." He has subsequently said he told the student "I hope you used a condom."

Jennings has admitted he could have done a better job dealing with the incident. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the White House are both standing behind Jennings.

But conservatives have been emboldened since their attacks on environmental advisor Van Jones and National Endowment for the Arts spokesman Yosi Sargent forced their resignations, and the knives are drawn for Jennings.

Led by conservative commentators, Jones was attacked for once calling Republicans "assholes" and signing a "9/11 Truth" petition that suggested the Bush administration knew about the September 11 terror attacks in advance. Jones was also a co-founder of a group that has led a drive to convince advertisers to abandon Fox News' Glenn Beck after Beck said on the air that President Obama was a "racist" with "a deep hatred of white people."

Sargent came under fire for his participation in a conference call during which the NEA encouraged artists to participate in a project, led by first lady Michelle Obama, about national service. Conservatives, again led by Beck, accused the agency of attempting to create Nazi-style propaganda. Sargent stepped down from his position as director of communications, but the NEA said he remained with the agency in another capacity.

In a statement released earlier this week by the Department of Education, Jennings said, "Twenty-one years later, I can see how I should have handled the situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted medical or legal authorities. Teachers back then had little training and guidance about this kind of thing. All teachers should have a basic level of preparedness."

Despite the revelation that "Brewster" was of age at the time, Tony Perkins, head of the conservative organization Family Research Council, called for Jennings' resignation and said, "You do not need special training to know child molestation is wrong."

But Jennings has some determined supporters. Gerald Tirozzi, head of the National Association of Secondary School Principles, recommended Jennings for the job.

"I've been working with Kevin for over seven or eight years now and his agenda is not only about gay kids," he said. "It's been all kids."

Tirozzi said that Jennings' expertise in bullying has earned him recognition from school principals in conservative as well as progressive districts.

CNN Senior Producer Kevin Bohn contributed to this story.

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