Calls mount for Kansas education chief to go over ‘raid’ remark

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Governor Laura Kelly and Indigenous leaders on Thursday called on Kansas’ top public school administrator to…

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Governor Laura Kelly and Native leaders on Thursday called on Kansas’ top public school administrator to resign over an offensive public joke about Native Americans.

Kelly was joined by three Native American lawmakers and the president 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 Watson’s remarks delivered by Zoom during a two-day conference last week on virtual learning.

Kelly, Watson and leaders of the four Native American nations met over Watson’s comments on Wednesday, the same day the State Board of Education scheduled a special meeting Friday to address the situation. The elected 10-member board appoints the commissioner to lead the state department of education.

The department released the video of Watson’s 51-minute presentation at the conference. The offensive remark came about 42 minutes into his comments, during a lengthy metaphor that likened responding to the coronavirus pandemic to handling both a tornado and a hurricane. He joked about how cousins ​​from California visited him in Kansas during the summer and were “petrified” by tornadoes.

“They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?'” Watson said. “And I would say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you have to worry about Indian raids on the city at any time. “”

One of the Indigenous lawmakers, Democratic state Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad of Wichita, called the remark “racist.” Prairie Band Potawatomi President Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said Watson showed he was “not cut out for a leadership role.”

“Commissioner Watson is responsible for guiding our future generation forward, but that can’t happen when he’s ignorant of the diverse history of our youth,” Rupnick said.

Council’s agenda indicates that he will hold a closed session to discuss personnel matters and speak with his lawyer. Board chairman Jim Porter said board members expected to review the video of Watson’s remarks. Porter said he had not seen the video, but Watson informed him and other council members of the situation.

Watson did not respond to an interview request Thursday.

“While Education Commissioner Randy Watson has had a long career 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. , a Democrat, in her statement. “There is no doubt that Randy Watson must resign from his post immediately.”

The other two Native American lawmakers calling for Watson’s resignation were Democratic state Reps. Stephanie Byers of Wichita and Christina Haswood of Lawrence.

Haskell Indian Nations University is located in Lawrence. Northeastern Kansas is home to four Native American nations: the Iowa, the Kickapoo, the Potawatomi Prairie Band, 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 facing Indigenous youth at a disproportionate rate,” Haswood said.

Watson became commissioner in November 2014 after serving as superintendent of McPherson Public Schools. As commissioner, Watson pushed for an overhaul of the state’s public schools to place greater emphasis on personalized learning and better prepare students for adult work.

The special meeting comes at a politically sensitive time for the board and public schools in the state. While Republicans hold a 6-4 majority, the council is less conservative than the GOP-controlled legislature.

Lawmakers are coming out nearly a decade after being forced by the Kansas Supreme Court to increase spending on public schools. Kelly’s closure of schools in 2020, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked criticism of virtual education and its restrictions.

Conservative Republicans are pursuing a measure to allow parents who are unhappy with their local schools to enroll their children in any other district and use public education funds to help those parents pay for school. private education.

Moreover, GOP conservatives were not reassured by assurances from the council last summer that public school curriculum standards did not include critical race theory, part of an academic movement that developed in the 1970s focusing on the legacy of slavery and racism in American history and society.

Republicans are pursuing moves to force schools to post information about school materials online and to give parents more power to shape what is taught and in school libraries. They said they promote transparency in education.

But Byers said, “The current assault on history education highlights the need for more in-depth teaching of Native American history in Kansas.”

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