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Governor calls on Kansas education commissioner to resign over alleged racist comment

Sam Zeff

Gov. Laura Kelly says commissioner Randy Watson should resign for "derogatory and discriminatory language" he used last week during a conference.

WICHITA — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has called on Education Commissioner Randy Watson to resign, following what she called a “derogatory and discriminatory” comment Watson made at a conference last week.

“While Education Commissioner Randy Watson has had a long career in advocating for our children in Kansas, the State and the Kansas Board of Education must take issues of derogatory and discriminatory language seriously,” Kelly said in a statement.

"There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately, given his comments last week. However, the Board of Education must also focus on ways to address these issues going forward. Let’s build on this moment to celebrate diversity and ensure that all Kansas school children are treated with dignity and respect.”

The state school board has called a special meeting for Friday.

Watson made the remark during a conference on virtual education last week. A video released by the Kansas Department of Education on Thursday includes the following:

"I had some cousins in California. They were petrified of tornadoes. They'd come visit us, you know, in the summer. They're like, 'Are we going to get killed by a tornado?' And I'd say, 'Don't worry about that. But you gotta worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time," Watson says on the Zoom call.

"And they really thought that, you know? Grew up in California, I guess you don't know much of the history of Kansas."

Watson was named education commissioner in November 2014 and took over the position in 2015. He previously served as superintendent of McPherson public schools.

Jim McNiece, a member of the state school board who represents the Wichita area, said earlier Thursday that he had "heard several versions" of what Watson allegedly said during the conference. McNiece said he assumes the reason for Friday's state board meeting is to discuss Watson's comments.

"I can tell you this: I don't support him resigning," McNiece said. "He's done a great job. He's been by far the best commissioner I've ever worked with."

Reached by phone Thursday, state board member Betty Arnold of Wichita said she would not comment on personnel matters.

In a news release Thursday afternoon a coalition of Native American legislators — Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, Rep. Stephanie Byers and Rep. Christina Haswood — also called for Watson to resign for what they called "insensitive and ignorant remarks."

"His commentary alluded to hateful and bigoted stereotypes towards Native Americans. Comments like those from Commissioner Watson undermine efforts to teach the truth," the lawmakers said in the statement.

"This rhetoric has been repeated for centuries and needs to stop; the history of First Americans is painful and largely absent from educational curricula, reflecting the cultural genocide of the Indigenous peoples."

Victors-Cozad said she is “appalled and saddened" by Watson's remarks. "This is why representation and diversity matters, so we can hold officials accountable for what they say. Nothing like this should happen in the future,” she said.

Haswood said the episode "reopened a trauma that many Indigenous youth experience in the classroom and contributes to the mental health crises that are faced by Indigenous youths at a disproportionate rate. Our Indigenous students simply deserve better.”

Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying Watson is "not suited for a leadership role" and should resign immediately.

"As an education leader in the state of Kansas, Commissioner Watson is responsible for guiding our future generation forward, but that cannot happen when he's ignorant to the diverse history of our youth," Rupnick said.

“We hope his disrespect brings attention to the need to correct historic wrongs and an understanding that there should be no tolerance for discriminatory language and actions against those of us whose land, culture and community is the foundation of today's United States of America."

During Watson's tenure with the Kansas Department of Education, he introduced the "Kansas Can" vision for education, which focuses on social-emotional education, kindergarten readiness, civic engagement and individual plans of study.

Watson also helped launch the Kansas Can School Redesign project, which encourages public schools to reinvent themselves around personalized and project-based learning.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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