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Top Kansas school official suspended over offensive remark

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ school board suspended the state’s top public school administrator Friday over an offensive public comment about Native Americans, rejecting the resignation he submitted after the governor and indigenous leaders demanded it.

Education Commissioner Randy Watson will be suspended for 30 days without pay, starting Monday. The 10-member elected State Board of Education appoints the commissioner to run the State Department of Education.

A special meeting Friday of the Republican-majority board began with Chair Jim Porter announcing that Watson had submitted his resignation, but after a closed, hourlong session, members voted unanimously to reject it in favor of the suspension.

“We looked at the entire history of the commissioner,” Porter said. “We believe in restorative justice.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s call Thursday for Watson’s resignation and the board’s actions Friday occurred amid the contentious national debate over what public schools teach about racism and its role in shaping history and modern society.

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Kelly spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald said the governor hopes to meet with Porter and Watson about how to “build on this moment” to see that all students are treated with dignity and respect.

The board’s suspension frustrated Native American leaders who’d also called for Watson to step down Thursday.

“Our ancestors dealt with this, our parents and our grandparents had to deal with this, and now we’re sitting at the table having to deal with this,” said Kickapoo Chair Lester Randall. “Sounds like to me the state’s kind of, like, turning their back on it by not accepting his resignation.”

Northeast Kansas is home to four Native American nations: the Kickapoo, Iowa, Prairie Band Potawatomi and Sac and Fox. Haskell Indian Nations University, founded in 1884 as a school for indigenous children, is in Lawrence, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Kansas City.

The city of Lawrence agreed last year to return to a Native American tribe forced into Oklahoma a prayer rock that was transformed more than 90 years ago into a monument to settlers. Also last year, the Shawnee Mission public school district in the Kansas City area — named after another displaced nation — dropped Braves and Indians school mascots.

But Native American leaders said indigenous students regularly face discrimination, harmful stereotypes and incomplete lessons about Native Americans.

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“This happens over and over again where we, as Native Americans, are told, ‘Yeah, but you know, it’s just a little thing. Let’s move on,’” said Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Byers, of Wichita, one of three Native American state lawmakers.

Watson did not attend the public portions of the board’s meeting and declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed after the meeting. The board did not release his resignation letter.

He made the offensive remark during a Zoom presentation to a conference on virtual education last week. A video showed him joking about how his California cousins used to visit 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.’”

Prairie Band Potawatomi Chair Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said of the board: “Their response sent a clear message to Indigenous People that comments like this are completely acceptable.”

At the start of the board’s meeting, Porter said Watson had made multiple apologies, but “these apologies have not been accepted by many who were affected.” He chided Kelly and legislators for getting involved publicly, noting that the board has “sole responsibility” for the Department of Education’s leadership.

Porter also noted that several state lawmakers have faced legal problems of their own over the past year yet “remain in their position with no or limited consequences.”

“It seems ironic to me that Commissioner Watson, who owned and did take responsibility for his statement, which was not illegal, feels obligated or feels forced to resign,” said Porter, a Republican from southeastern Kansas.

Betty Arnold, a Black Democrat from Wichita and the state board’s only member of color, said Watson’s remark was insensitive.

But she added: “I felt like because he is a caring individual, he’s going to be more in tune moving forward to make sure that this does not occur again.”

Watson became education commissioner in November 2014 after serving as school superintendent in McPherson, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) northwest of Wichita. As commissioner, Watson is pushing a redesign of the state’s public schools to place more emphasis on personalized learning and better preparing students for adult work.

State Senate Education Committee Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican, said while Watson had “a lapse of judgment,” she also looks at his “fairly distinguished career.”

“When there is a lapse, there should be the opportunity for grace and forgiveness,” she said. “And too often that has been in very short supply.”


Also contributing were Andy Tsubasa Field in Topeka, Kansas, and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas.

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