Does Brewster’s age matter?

As noted here two days ago, Kevin Jennings made a statement regarding a student’s disclosure of involvement with an older man while Jennings was a teacher at Concord Academy. Here again is the statement:

Twenty one years later I can see how I should have handled this situation differently.  I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities. Teachers back then had little training or guidance about this kind of thing. All teachers should have a basic level of preparedness. I would like to see the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools play a bigger role in helping to prepare teachers.

Since then, left-leaning websites, some gay advocates (although a notable exception is Gaypatriot who says Jennings should resign) and CNN have commented further on the matter, defending Jennings. At issue is dispute over Brewster/Robertson/Thompson’s age – was he 15 or 16? And does it matter?

Media Matters, parroted by CNN, asserted that Brewster was 16, not 15. If Brewster was 16, Jennings was not required to report sexual conduct because 16 was the age of consent in MA. Their reasoning is:

Massachusetts law required reporting by those with reason to believe child “is suffering serious physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse.” According to a footnote in a 1990 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case, in 1988, chapter 119, section 51A, of the General Laws of Massachusetts provided:

[Any] public or private school teacher … who, in his professional capacity shall have reasonable cause to believe that a child under the age of eighteen years is suffering serious physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse inflicted upon him including sexual abuse … shall immediately report such condition to the department by oral communication and by making a written report within forty-eight hours after such oral communication …

Jennings’ attorney: Book passage does not indicate that Jennings had reason to believe student was being abused. In the letter, Boland stated, “Nowhere in the book does Mr. Jennings state that he understood the student was being abused of victimized, or that he suffered injury from any abuse.” Boland added, “Based on the plain meaning of the words in the book, it is clear that Mr. Jennings had no ‘reasonable cause to believe’ that the student was being abused in any way. Because there was no abuse and no ‘sexual victimization,’ the statute does not apply.” [Boland letter, 8/3/04]

Media Matters accuses Politico’s Mike Allen and Fox News of not reporting all of the facts in this instance. While they may be correct about some omissions, they also make omissions in their reporting. For instance, Media Matters does not include all of what Boland said on behalf of Jennings.

jenningsboland letter

They left out the phrase, “…or indeed that the student was even having sex.” In light of Jennings’ 2006 book where he was advising Robertson on safe sex, the description from his book, One Teacher in Ten, where Brewster disclosed a relationship with an ”older man” in Boston, and the 2000 speech where Brewster went home with someone he met in a Boston bathroom, this statement from Boland now seems misleading. Media Matters also ignored the audio of the 2000 speech where Jennings himself said that the boy was 15 years old. He also said that Brewster was an advisee and that he learned about the Boston trip early in his first year. Here is what he said about it:

And in my second job I wasn’t sure how I wanted to deal with that. And I was in my first month on the job and I had an advisee named Brewster. Brewster was missing a lot of classes; he was in the boarding school so I said to his teacher, his first period teacher, I said, ‘next time Brewster misses a class I want you to tell me that he’s missed that class and, uh, I will go find him.’ So I went and found Brewster one morning when she had called and he was asleep in his dorm room. And I said, “Brewster, what are you doing in there asleep?” And he said, “Well, I’m tired.” And I said, “Well we all are tired and we all got to school today.” And he said, “Well I was out late last night.” And I said, “What were you doing out late on a school night.” And he said, “Well, I was in Boston…” Boston was about 45 minutes from Concord. So I said, “What were you doing in Boston on a school night Brewster?” He got very quiet, and he finally looked at me and said, “Well I met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.” High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people. I was a closeted gay teacher, 24 years old, didn’t know what to say. Knew I should say something quickly so I finally said, My best friend had just died of AIDS the week before. I looked at Brewster and said, “You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.” He said to me something I will never forget, He said “Why should I, my life isn’t worth saving anyway.”

Why did they omit those details? Surely, they are relevant to the defense they are trying to mount.

I don’t know how old Brewster was or even if there is a Brewster. Only Mr. Jennings know this and up to now, he has not disclosed much. I can understand some of this. It is not uncommon for speakers to disguise details of case studies in order to preserve confidentiality. Age might be one of those details. Readers will have to judge which account seems more plausible.

The credibility of statements in the Boland letter is now open to review given the 2000 speech, the 2006 book and the statement from Mr. Jennings this week. I am puzzled that Media Matters (then followed by CNN and others) would rely so heavily on it and ignore other relevant information.

The other age-related wrinkle here is the requirement that mandated reporters (teachers in public and private schools are mandated reporters) notify the Department of Social Service if they have

 reasonable cause to believe…that a child under the age of eighteen years is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare including sexual abuse…

Everybody seems to stipulate that if the boy was 15 then a report should have been made. However, if not, then what? One would need to make a judgement call about the nature of the disclosures and whether they are causing the child under 18 to experience injury. Given the repeated statements that the boy was suicidal, something was not right and needed some attention. What was causing the boy’s distress?

We may be dealing with an issue of attribution. Apparently Jennings believed the boy’s suicidal thoughts were coming from a lack of acceptance of his sexual attractions. Many gay defenders of Jennings point to this as quite likely and have an intuition to relate to his 1987/1988 response. However, others may believe the suicidal thoughts derive from his youthful sexual behavior and possible remorse or dissonance. Some might wonder if he was struggling with his sexual identity. Still others might suggest mental illness or some combination of all three. Different attributions about the cause of the behavior will lead to different actions on the part of the teacher. It is difficult enough for people who are trained in mental health to make these calls, it surely is above the pay grade of an inexperience teacher to be certain. The law says that suspicion of abuse is needed not certainty. With that in mind, Jennings admission that he should have sought consultation is a step in the right direction.

There is a larger issue here which I will take up in future post. When ideological differences are great, how can we develop policies and procedures which help offset our biases? Brewster is like a Rorschach test for projecting adult recollections of adolecent angst. Each of us look at the situation and think, ‘he needed this or he needed that.’ As many have opined through the years when reflecting on GLSEN, perhaps what adolecents need is not to be turned into a political movement but guided in light of their individual needs.

UPDATE: Media Matters apparently is the PR arm of the Department of Education and has released what they say is a photo of Brewster’s license. MM however, continues to avoid dealing with what Jennings said to his own constituents about the boy’s age.

UPDATE #2: A Brewster has come forward to express support for Jennings. CNN has the summary and Media Matters has the details, including a Facebook conversation between FOX News reporter, Maxim Lott and Brewster. The account provided by this Brewster is confusing when trying  to reconcile it with Jennings’ past accounts and the recent statement that he should have handled the situation differently. While Media Matters has focused on the exact age of the boy, the group has not addressed the discrepancies in past accounts. They accuse FOX of wildly inaccurate reporting but fail to note that the reporting was based on Jennings own statements.

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  • Ann

    Twenty one years later I can see how I should have handled this situation differently.

    This is just too nebulous to me – anyone can say this when their prior actions have been called into accountability.

    I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities.

    Does he ever offer a justification as to why he did not?

    Teachers back then had little training or guidance about this kind of thing.

    As others have already noted – the above statement is not true.

    All teachers should have a basic level of preparedness.

    It is my understanding from the teachers I know that they do – and they did then as well.

    I would like to see the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools play a bigger role in helping to prepare teachers.

    He would have to come clean first to be credible. I have not seen that unless I am missing something.

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  • Ann

    At issue is dispute over Brewster/Robertson/Thompson’s age – was he 15 or 16? And does it matter?

    Media Matters, parroted by CNN, asserted that Brewster was 16, not 15. If Brewster was 16, Jennings was not required to report sexual conduct because 16 was the age of consent in MA.

    Doing one’s job based on the least that is required is marginal at best – he did not act on this young man’s behalf in a responsible way, rather his decision to withhold information from the proper authorities and give his own personal advice to him instead had a pernicious effect and outcome.

  • Ann

    It’s unfortunate that left-wing bloggers have been slurring those who have been criticizing Jennings’s conduct, calling them “anti-gay.” Hardly.

    From the gaypatriot.com web page referenced in the topic. Nice to see this kind of certitude and distinction about an over used label.

  • http://theformers.wordpress.com Debbie Thurman

    As many have opined through the years when reflecting on GLSEN, perhaps what adolecents need is not to be turned into a political movement but guided in light of their individual needs.

    Heavens, yes. You make a lot of relevant points in this post. And, naturally, Jennings’ telling and retelling of the story with differing elements appearing in each (did the co-worker bring Brewster to him or did he go find him in his dorm room when the discussion took place?) would raise red flags and call his credibility into question. Why he did this is the nebulous question he may or may not ever answer. Did he just have trouble recalling the details? Or something else?

  • David Blakeslee

    @Ann,

    There is that troublesome word again: “anti-gay.” Incredible power.

  • hazemyth

    I don’t see this as a serious credibility issue. Sure, the story has changed in the telling. He was just making an anecdote to illustrate a point, not testifying to congress.

    Given that we don’t, and probably can’t, know the full details of the event… given that concern for the well-being of the child (now presumably an adult) is largely moot, twenty years later… given that people have chosen to dwell on the one facet of the story that reflects badly on Jennings… all of this seems just an attempt to exploit the liability of a political opponent. Which is really just a distraction from the politics issues themselves. Surely such issues are much more indicative of Jennings’ fitness as a policy-maker?

    So far, I can see two aspects of Jennings’ policy position demonstrated in regard to this issue: A) His original point, that gay-affirmation is necessary for the mental healthy of SSA teens. B) His recent statement that uniform guidelines should be in place, directing such issues to the proper authorities.

    Prof. Throckmorton makes an interesting point regarding people’s tendency to project onto the child. I suppose some will feel that the child needed gay-affirmation and others might feel that he needed guidance away from his same sex attractions. Naturally, as adults, we may choose our own path, congruent with our own values and norms. I wouldn’t want schools to be agnostic on this issue, though. And I imagine many people on both sides of the divide would agree. I doubt that we can avoid a dispute over such norms, in the public sphere, where the welfare of children is concerned. Schools will have to adopt one set of norms or another. I do feel, as Jennings suggests, that gay-affirmation is essential to the well-being of SSA teens.

  • http://blog Thomas Peters

    As I argued today, I think the exact age of Brewster is a distraction:

    The dispute seems to only determine whether Jennings’ advice was inappropriate, or inappropriate and criminal. The man who is now charged with keeping our schools safe told a young boy in a “relationship” with a far-older man to simply practice safe sex!

    My organization also has a campaign to Expel Jennings.

    Folks might be interested in my ongoing coverage of this story, including videos where Jenkins says that teachers who haven’t undergone sensitivity training are a “threat to children.” Now there’s an irony.

  • http://theformers.wordpress.com Debbie Thurman

    So far, I can see two aspects of Jennings’ policy position demonstrated in regard to this issue: A) His original point, that gay-affirmation is necessary for the mental healthy of SSA teens. B) His recent statement that uniform guidelines should be in place, directing such issues to the proper authorities.

    Well, A. ought to disqualify him from the post, if the recent APA report means anything at all. I assure you gay affirmation would have been anything but beneficial to me as a teen. Warren has written any number of times about how teens are nowhere near mature enough to be clear in determining their sexual orientation. I know how vulnerable I was at that age. How about you?

  • Mary

    AT 15? Pretty vulnerable and nowhere near being able to navigate sexual relationships.

  • hazemyth

    Well, in this sense, I take gay affirmation to mean simply, ‘it’s okay to be gay.’ One doesn’t have to be ‘clear in determining [one's] sexual orientation’ to gain from this assurance. In fact, that’s the point. To take away the stigma often associated with determining ones sexuality.

    And, since you ask, I wish I hadn’t spent years feeling ashamed that I might have been gay. It would have been easier to explore what I was feeling honestly, if I had felt otherwise. Instead, I spent years trying to avoid acknowledging those feelings with which, ultimately, I had to come to terms, one way or another.

    This is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a very common experience among gay persons. Yet, I’ve met many younger gay persons a decade (or less) younger than me, who determined their sexuality in a much more open environment. They are, without question, happier and more well-adjusted as gay adults than I was at their age.

    How do you feel that such gay affirmation would have been anything but beneficial to you?

    All of this, I realize, is off-topic from the post. I’ll gladly discontinue the discussion, if people prefer. Only, this seems to me the more substantive discussion — the discussion pertaining to the political thrust of Jennings’ anecdote, rather than the morality of long-past and ill-described professional choice.

  • Eddy

    I’m not sure about this one…I think we do disservice to the requirements when we bold only certain words.

    reasonable cause to believe…that a child under the age of eighteen years is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare including sexual abuse…

    That’s the version from above with the emphasis on age.

    reasonable cause to believe…that a child under the age of eighteen years is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare including sexual abuse…

    Is it clear that Brewster is being injured physically or emotionally? I believe we see the potential for injury but can we say that Brewster is being physically or emotionally injured? I see ‘at risk’ of being injured.

    reasonable cause to believe…that a child under the age of eighteen years is suffering physical or emotional injury resulting from abuse inflicted upon him which causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare including sexual abuse…

    Another judgement call…it sounds like Brewster went to the restroom looking for sex. I know we are capable of enough verbal gymastics to turn this into ‘abuse inflicted upon him’…but was that the spirit of the directive? Jennings had a kid report that he’d gone out and had sex with an older person. The purpose of reporting such abuse is to protect a child from an abuser not necessarily protecting the child from themselves.

    Consider where any reporting would have led. Did we have the name of the older guy? If Brewster had a clue that this might be reported, would he offer up the info? It’s very unlikely that reporting would have done anything except give Brewster a few highly embarrassing interviews/sessions with a counselor/therapist/social worker. It’s effect on ‘stopping the abuse’ would have been negligible. It’s potential contribution to even more feelings of shame and self-hatred is a variable that Jennings likely had no way to measure.

    (Yikes…it sounds like I’ve defected, doesn’t it?!) Take heart. I haven’t. But I simply don’t believe in blindly following a law especially when there are areas that are unclear such as the ones I cited. BUT…did Jennings fall short on some responsibilities. I believe he may have. It sounds as if he mentioned losing a friend to AIDS as a lead-in to his question/advice about using a condom. Talking the reality of death to a teenager…especially death at a young age…ought to be considered as ‘cautionary’. I don’t know how much more we’d have expected Jennings to offer in the way of advice or counsel. I would have liked to hear some advice on ‘don’t trust strangers’…’don’t go to somebody’s home that you don’t know’…I once advised a sexually active underage boy to consider that the people he was engaging in sex with were breaking the law…if they could wink at that law, how did we really know what other laws they felt didn’t apply to them. But Jennings wasn’t a counselor. (For the record, neither was I when I dispensed the advise above. I lived near a park where a lot of cruising was going on and noticed that this kid was ‘always there’ and usually on the fringes of a section that had a reputation for illicit activity.) Jennings didn’t have the benefit of a scheduled appointment and cheater notes on what the problem was. In both scenario’s that have been presented, Jennings has no foreknowledge of Brewster’s issues. The disclosure happens in an ‘off the cuff’ manner and the advice is dispensed in the same way.

    Furthermore, we presume the kid to be suicidal due to his ‘I hate my life and might as well be dead’ statement. Sorry but I remember teenage somewhat…I responded that way when my parents wouldn’t let me go to a rock concert…I know teens that respond with nearly identical wording when they get grounded, can’t borrow the car, have to get a job, have a test, get assigned a chore. Only the persons in the conversation have any real sense as to how serious the statement was. Currently, activities that are perceived as ‘self-destructive’ don’t rise to the level of ‘suicidal thoughts’.

    It appears that Jensen did the most important thing. He connected. He gave Brewster someone he knew he could go to and talk to…and he made sure to remind Brewster of that when he continued to notice him with a ‘knowing smile’ .

    I’m sure I’ve said lots to be disagreed with. Just want you to know that I haven’t said this in an attempt to engage in argument. I’m simply presenting another way of viewing the circumstances. Read it and accept it. Fine. Read it and reject it. Fine. Take some, leave some. That’s fine too. Just so you know that it isn’t as black and white as it’s being presented.

    LOL. And lest you think I’ve gone off my rocker and had a total change of mind and heart, you’ll note that I DID NOT weigh in on the Brewster part of the challenge to Jennings on the other cantankerous thread. My questions re Jennings’ qualifications were related to his appraisal of the seminar that included helpful tips on fisting.

    Oh, and my reasoning (or lack of it) from the bulk of this post applies whether Brewster was 15 or 16.

  • http://theformers.wordpress.com Debbie Thurman

    And, since you ask, I wish I hadn’t spent years feeling ashamed that I might have been gay. It would have been easier to explore what I was feeling honestly, if I had felt otherwise. Instead, I spent years trying to avoid acknowledging those feelings with which, ultimately, I had to come to terms, one way or another.

    Hazemyth, I asked how vulnerable you felt as a teen. I guess you could interpret that to mean how secure you were in your identity as you experienced it at the time. Were you susceptible to being preyed on, possibly? Could you know for certain at 15 or even 16 — and yes, this is relevant to the age question as regards Brewster — that you were really gay? Maybe you could, but I don’t think you would say that every kid could.

    What I was saying about myself is I know I was vulnerable, immature and unable to clearly interpret all my adolescent feelings, and certainly vulnerable to being turned aside to believe that going down the gay road was what I needed to do. I was raised in the Christian faith. Lots of kids are. That presumes a values conflict with gay feelings for most, which is not automatically unhealthy, as the APA has recognized.

    Did Brewster’s age matter: (a) for reporting purposes in Mass., and (b) in terms of his adolescent confusion and angst? Seems to me we have a two-part question here.

  • hazemyth

    I guess I’m having a difficult time drawing the connection between my position on gay affirmation among teens and your question about vulnerability (which I took to be in response to my post).

  • http://www.holybulliesandheadlessmonsters.blogspot.com a. mcewen

    How’s this for another update – Media Matters has found and interviewed Brewster. And he defends Jennings BIG TIME:

    http://mediamatters.org/blog/200910020020

    This situation has morphed into a huge embarrassment for those speaking against Jennings.

    And now anything else dug up about Jennings will look like blatant homophobia, as it should.

  • http://www.wthrockmorton.com Warren

    The statement from Brewster is not consistent with Jennings telling of the story but a. mcewen, you are correct he defends Jennings. I wonder what he thinks of Jennings statement that he should have called in medical and legal consultation.

    Some have stretched this situation into what might be embarrassing for them. However, in 2004, Jennings implied through his lawyer that he did not know the boy was sexually active. Now, the issue is when did the activity take place that would lead Jennings to say, “I hope you knew to use a condom.”

  • hazemyth

    It seems likely that Jennings embellished his anecdote (and inconsistently at that). Hardly rare. Of course, that’s why all anecdotal evidence should be taken with a grain of salt. Necessarily, that embellishment undermines the value of the anecdote as evidence of his point. Yet, I think there’s a mistake in treating such statements too literally.

  • Mary

    Well, in any event, the entire situation was legally shaky. It seems to me that Jennings may have been more intimidated by the exposure of homosexuality (even though he was out to some) than anything else. This is not an excuse for camplacency and rather just an observation. Teachers and counselors (especially young vulnerable counselors because 24 is barely experienced) need specific guidance and traning on how to report, regard, what actions to take, etc.. when such a situation becomes known.

  • http://theformers.wordpress.com Debbie Thurman

    I think you meant this link, a.mcewen.

  • http://theformers.wordpress.com Debbie Thurman

    CNN now has this story on “Brewster” speaking out. And he (if he is real) is denying he even had sex with the “man” he met at the Boston bus station. So who is Kevin Jennings talking about in his various anecdotes over the years? Did he make the whole thing up? Is his Brewster a composite? The plot thickens. I’m not sure it is really helping Jennings.

  • Lynn

    If this was a 15 or 16 year old heterosexual having sex with an adult, heaven and earth would have been moved to find and arrest the adult. Jennings would have been labeled an enabler and fired by now. I see no difference in the gender or the sexual leanings of either of them. It’s just wrong. PERIOD

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