Who is Diane Lenning and why should we care?
Mrs. Lenning is a public school teacher from California who was until recently the undisputed chair of the Republican Educators Caucus, an interest group within the National Education Association. According to a series of stories by George Archibald of the Washington Times, Mrs. Lenning recently was challenged and nearly ousted from her position in part because she formally protested an award the NEA presented the week of its annual convention in early July. What award? The NEA gives human rights awards yearly and this year one of them, the Virginia Uribe Human Rights Award was given to Kevin Jennings, the Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Caucus (GLSEN).
If you have children in public schools, the Lenning-Jennings story is one you should know.
Kevin Jennings is the founder and executive director of the group that seeks to bring discussion of homosexuality related issues to our nation’s public schools from the elementary grades to college. GLSEN has been remarkably successful in popularizing the concept of gay-straight support clubs in schools, of which there are now more than 2,000 nationwide. However, Mrs. Lenning and the other teachers were not protesting his award based on his political objectives.
Several days before the award was to be presented, Mrs. Lenning learned of the award and wrote a letter of protest to the NEA president Reg Weaver. At the same time, other teachers wrote letters and voiced protest. Why? The teachers were upset that the nation’s largest teacher’s union was honoring a person who may have behaved unethically, if not illegally, when he was himself a teacher. Second, the group Mr. Jennings founded was partly responsible for one of the most unseemly events in the history of public instruction in the state of Massachusetts.
Here are the details. In his book, “One Teacher in Ten,” Mr. Jennings wrote about a high school sophomore who confessed to him what appears to be a homosexual affair with an older adult male. As now, teachers in Massachusetts were then required to report such sexual offenses involving minors to the authorities. Failure to report is not only unethical behavior but illegal in the state. According to Mr. Jennings account in the book and corroborated by a July 2 Washington Times’ article, no such report was made. Mr. Jennings turned the event into a time of sharing and apparently a part of the boy’s gay coming out story. Concerning this event, Mrs. Lenning’s letter asks: “Is it a good idea for NEA to honor as exemplary a teacher who engages in unethical practice?”
Mrs. Lenning also mentioned the role of GLSEN in another Massachusetts incident. She wrote: “GLSEN has been involved in questionable incidents that bring undesired notoriety to the education profession and should not be awarded. The famous questionable “Fistgate” at Tufts University is an example of GLSEN activities that have brought unsolicited notoriety.”
What was Fistgate? Along with the Massachusetts Department of Education on March 25, 2000, GLSEN presented a workshop for teachers and students that resulted in the dismissal of three DOE employees and the removal of GLSEN as the state authorized contractor. Mr. Jennings was the keynote speaker at the event. The reason for the dismissal involved graphic descriptions, before students as young as 14, of how to perform certain homosexual acts. A tape was made of the event and publicly distributed. I can’t report what was said because if I did, this column would not get published anywhere.
Most people don’t know that this event occurred but it is a good reminder why parents should check into what is going on in schools, especially at special events relating to diversity or tolerance. Children in Massachusetts were exposed to pornographic speech in the name of tolerance and Mrs. Lenning thought the NEA president should have to defend why the NEA would honor the founder of the group that planned that event. Again, she received no direct answer.
She did get an indirect response however. Her stand against the Jennings award garnered the protests of delegates in and out of the caucus she chairs. New recruits joined the caucus to vote her out, some of whom were not even Republican. The protest letter was mentioned by the opposition as one reason for the coup. Were the issues that brought the letter into existence debated or discussed? Not at all. In other words, did those plotting her ouster care about the substantive issues raised by Mrs. Lenning? Apparently not. This was never brought up.
Why should we care about Mrs. Lenning’s protest? If you have children in a public school where GLSEN is active, you might wonder if anyone is monitoring their activities. As for Mrs. Lenning, she still holds the post but not without challenge from her opponents
In the meantime, if there is an award for asking tough questions, Mrs. Lenning should be nominated. I suspect there might be a protest.