TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Laura Kelly and indigenous leaders on Thursday called on Kansas’ top public school administrator to resign over an offensive public remark about Native Americans.
Kelly was joined by three Native American lawmakers and the chair of one of Kansas’ four Native American nations in demanding that Randy Watson step down as state education commissioner. They all reviewed a video of remarks Watson delivered by Zoom during a two-day conference last week on virtual learning.
But the Democratic governor received some pushback. The Republican chair of the state Senate Education Committee said Kelly should have left the matter to the State Board of Education. The elected 10-member board appoints the commissioner to run the State Department of Education.
Watson and leaders of the four Native American nations met about Watson’s comments Wednesday, the same day the state school board scheduled a special meeting for Friday to deal with the situation.
The department released the video of Watson’s 51-minute presentation during the conference. The offensive remark came about 42 minutes into his comments, during an extended metaphor that compared responding to the coronavirus pandemic to dealing with both a tornado and a hurricane. He joked about how cousins from California used to visit him in Kansas during the summer and were “petrified” of tornadoes.
“They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’” Watson said. “And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’”
One of the Native lawmakers, Democratic state Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, of Wichita, called the remark “racist.” Prairie Band Potawatomi Chair Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said Watson showed that he “is not suited for a leadership role.”
“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.
The board expects most of Friday’s meeting to be closed as it confers with its attorney and discusses Watson’s remark. Chair Jim Porter, a southeast Kansas Republican, said he has not seen the video, but Watson informed him and other board members of the situation.
Watson did not respond to a request for an interview Thursday.
Kelly said the board “must take issues of derogatory and discriminatory language seriously.”
“There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately,” she said in her statement.
The two other Native American lawmakers calling on Watson to resign were Democratic state Reps. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, and Christina Haswood, of Lawrence.
Haskell Indian Nations University is in Lawrence. Northeast Kansas is home to four Native American nations: the Iowa, the Kickapoo, the Prairie Band Potawatomi and the Sac and Fox.
“This situation has 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,” Haswood said.
Also, the Kansas Association for Native American Education called for changes in public schools, such as revising lessons to teach students about Native Americans in “modern and contemporary contexts.” The group said U.S. schools “perpetuate a narrow understanding” about Native people.
“We hear remarks and see imagery that frames American Indians as warlike stereotypes quite often,” the group said in a statement.
State Senate Education Committee Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican, said Kelly should have stayed focused on policy, letting the board address Watson’s remark. She declined to comment on it, having not seen the video and said as a legislator, she’s never questioned Watson’s commitment to “what would be the most appropriate” for “our kids.”
Watson became education commissioner in November 2014 after serving as superintendent of McPherson’s public schools. As commissioner, Watson has pushed for a redesign of the state’s public schools to place more emphasis on personalized learning and better preparing students for adult work.
The special meeting comes at a politically tricky time for the board and the state’s public schools. While Republicans hold a 6-4 majority, the board is less conservative than the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Conservative lawmakers weren’t assuaged by the board’s assurances last summer that public school curriculum standards didn’t include critical race theory, part of a scholarly movement that developed in the 1970s focusing on the legacy of slavery and racism in American history and society.
Republicans are pursuing measures to force schools to post information about classroom materials online and to give parents more power to shape what is taught and in school libraries. Conservatives are pushing a measure to allow parents who are unhappy with their local schools to enroll their children in any other district and to use state education funds to help such parents pay for private schooling.
Baumgardner said lawmakers have “always had open, honest communication” with Watson.
“I think his compassion for learning and for kids is without question,” she said.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism