WASHINGTON — A President Obama appointee in the Education Department acknowledged Wednesday that as a teacher 21 years ago he mishandled an incident in which he failed to notify authorities that a 15-year-old student had told him he had sexual relations with an adult.
Kevin Jennings, head of the department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, said in a statement that he "should have handled this situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted legal and medical authorities."
Jennings' inaction was discussed in the teaching community as far back as 2004. It is now being condemned as part of a broader critique of Jennings' fitness for the education post by conservative critics, who also accuse him of promoting homosexuality.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement of support for Jennings, saying that "he is uniquely qualified for his job, and I am honored to have him on our team."
Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said the accusation that Jennings promoted homosexuality was too ridiculous to deserve comment.
Jennings, 45, is the founder and former executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national organization committed to preventing harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Education Department office Jennings heads was established by President George W. Bush in 2002. It seeks to combat drug and alcohol abuse, bullying and other violence in schools.
The description of the encounter with the teen was drawn from an autobiographical passage in "One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories," one of six books by Jennings.
In it, Jennings, at the time a teacher at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, tells of counseling the boy, who had told him that he was sexually involved with a man.
Jennings' failure to report the incident flared into controversy in 2004 when an Orange County teacher criticized the National Education Assn. for giving Jennings a human rights award, according to news accounts at the time. That teacher, chairwoman of the NEA's Republican caucus, subsequently came under fire from GOP colleagues who regarded her views as extreme.
The most recent questions about Jennings' conduct came from the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative Christian group.
Jennings is the latest Obama appointee to be questioned by conservative groups. Last month, Van Jones, who headed Obama's green jobs initiative, resigned after revelations that included his support for the idea that the U.S. may have had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.