Education Officials 'Silent' Over Rash of Teen Suicides

After a rash of suicides involving students bullied over their sexual orientation, Education Department officials have been relatively silent,including the controversial "safe schools" chief appointed to deal with this very issue.

At least five students have taken their own lives since early September -- family and friends said most of them were bullied for being or appearing to be gay.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday announced millions of dollars in grant money aimed at improving school safety. But Kevin Jennings, the head of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, said in an interview that the money was not in response to the suicides -- California was the only grant recipient where one of the suicides occurred.

Though the Education Department has put extra focus on school bullying -- with the grant program and an anti-bullying summit in August -- Washington has not rushed to address the latest incidents as gay rights groups have clamored for action.

Jennings' first appearance since the string of suicides started was last Friday at a legislative breakfast in New York City. The same day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a two-paragraph written statement condemning the harassment that led to the tragedies.

"This is a moment where every one of us -- parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience -- needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms," Duncan said. "No more. This must stop."

But online outlets that focus on gay issues have accused the administration of not speaking out. San Francisco-based gay rights advocate and blogger Michael Petrelis repeatedly has urged top officials, including President Obama, to do more to address the suicides. He said in an e-mail to that the administration is giving "the silent treatment" to the issue.

"Obama's silence harms all kids bullied -- gay, straight, or questioning," Petrelis said, adding that Jennings needs to demonstrate "regular public engagement."

"We cannot overlook the almost-invisible and nearly-mute Kevin Jennings," he said. "A good time for him to break his silence would be now, and to do so on the topic of how federal dollars will be used to address the bullying epidemic."

Jennings discussed the incidents in an interview Tuesday with Bay Windows, a gay-audience newspaper in New England. He said the recent suicides are not a new phenomenon and that the high rate of suicides among gay youth "is something that has been documented and known for a very long time."

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

Jennings came under fire from Republicans on Capitol Hill last year over concerns that he did not report that a young man told him years ago he was romantically involved with an older man.

Jennings, the founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, has described in articles and speeches how a high-school student confided to him in 1988 that he was having a relationship with an older man.

Though Jennings had described the boy as 15 years old, the student has since claimed he was 16, the legal age in Massachusetts, and that he was not sexually active. Republican efforts to compel Obama to fire Jennings were unsuccessful.

But the safe schools chief has direct experience in the kinds of cases that are appearing across the country. He was bullied as a teenager and once attempted suicide.

A 2009 GLSEN survey said nine out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students were harassed at some point in the last year. Another recent study said the suicide rate among those students is three-to-four times higher than among straight students.

The incident that has attracted the most attention was the case of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who threw himself off a bridge last month after two students broadcast online his sexual encounters with another man. A 13-year-old student in Texas also shot himself in the head last month after being bullied. Three students reportedly hanged themselves in September -- a 13-year-old student in California, a 15-year-old student in Indiana and a 19-year-old student in Rhode Island.

The incidents triggered widespread outcry and calls from the gay rights community for the federal government to step in. GLSEN, along with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and The Trevor Project, released a statement urging Congress to pass a national anti-bullying law. One House lawmaker has said she will reintroduce a bill to outlaw cyberbullying.

Shane Windmeyer, executive director and founder of Campus Pride, told that federal grant money should be directed toward studying the problem and setting up safeguards like suicide prevention programs.

"The federal government needs to be the stimulus for this," he said. "It's kind of sad that we've had years of youth suicides happening and nobody in many respects in the federal government really paid attention. ... Sadly, because of the circumstances, people are paying attention now."

Windmeyer said the grant money announced Tuesday is a good start. The $38.8 million in funding was awarded to the departments of education in Arizona, California, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

According to the department, the money will go toward studying "school safety" by surveying students and figuring out which schools need the most help.

Duncan said at the anti-bullying summit in August that prevention programs can make a big difference.

"It is an absolute travesty of our educational system when students fear for their safety at school, worry about being bullied, or suffer discrimination and taunts because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or a host of other reasons," Duncan said at the time.