Gov. Laura Kelly and state lawmakers call for resignation
TOPEKA — Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson said during a conference earlier this month that as a child, he convinced his out-of-state cousins that American Indians posed a bigger threat to their safety than tornadoes.
Gov. Laura Kelly and three state representatives with American Indian heritage have called on Watson to resign over the remark, and the Kansas State Board of Education plans to discuss the situation in a closed-door meeting Friday.
The Kansas State Department of Education provided access to the video of Watson’s remarks in response to an open records request filed Wednesday by Kansas Reflector. The video is of Watson’s hourlong keynote presentation at the Kansas Virtual Learning Conference, which took place from Feb. 14-15.
The event was hosted by the Andover Center for Advanced Professional Studies. About 40 minutes into the presentation, Watson talks about how he used to teach in Andover. Shortly after he left, he said, the town was devastated by the April 1991 tornado outbreak.
He then launched into a sort of stream-of-consciousness rambling about tornado safety, apparently in response to a question from an unseen and unheard conference participant.
“You guys know what do you do when there is a tornado in Kansas? Not if you’re born in Massachusetts, OK, or you’re Canadian — hey hey you hoser,” Watson said. “You’re a Kansan, and the tornado sirens go off. What do you do? We run outside, right? Where’s it at?”
Why? Watson asks. Because you can watch the cloud formulate into a tornado and see tornadoes coming, or even “fall down on top of you.”
“There’s sirens going off. There’s warnings. There’s danger Will Robinson,” Watson said.
He continued: “I had some cousins from California. They were petrified of tornadoes. They’d come visit us, you know, in the summer. They were like, ‘Are we doing to get killed by a tornado?’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they really thought that. Grow up in California, I guess you don’t know much of the history of Kansas.”
Concerns about the remarks, inaccurately transcribed in a Facebook post on Feb. 15, surfaced this week.
The governor said Thursday the state of Kansas and the state Board of Education must take seriously commentary by officials that expressed insensitivity.
“There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately, given his comments last week,” Kelly said. “However, the Board of Education must also focus on ways to address these issues going forward.”
Kelly said the state should build on “this moment to celebrate diversity and ensure that all Kansas school children are treated with dignity and respect.”
The state Board of Education made Watson the education commissioner in 2014. The board considers Watsons remarks to be a personnel matter, which allows for Friday’s conversation to occur in executive session. If the board were to dismiss Watson, that action would be affirmed in public session.
Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, a six-term Wichita Democrat and the first American Indian woman to serve in the state Legislature, Rep. Christina Haswood and Rep. Stephanie Byers asked Watson to resign.
Victors-Cozad said she is “appalled and saddened that our Native American youth have to witness the commissioner of education saying these racist remarks about our people.”
“This is why representation and diversity matters — so we can hold officials accountable for what they say,” Victors-Cozad said. “Nothing like this should happen in the future.”
Haswood, a Lawrence Democrat, said comments like the one made by Watson are harmful to Native American youths.
“I represent a large urban Native American population,” Haswood said. “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. Our Indigenous students simply deserve better.”
Byers, a Wichita Democrat, said modern Native Americans are descendants of survivors.
“We existed and continue to exist in a nation that has not always been willing to recognize our sovereignty,” Byers said. “The current assault on teaching history truthfully highlights the need for a more thorough teaching of the history of Native Americans in Kansas.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.
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The Lawrence Times reposts many, but not all, stories from the Kansas Reflector. Read more of their coverage here. We also frequently repost stories from the Kansas News Service. Read more of their coverage here.
The Kansas commissioner of public education apologized Tuesday for telling attendees of an online education conference that when growing up he attempted to convince people visiting the state they should be more afraid of dangerous American Indians than violent tornadoes.