‘Worry about the Indians raiding’: Kansas education commissioner under fire for conference joke

Gov. Laura Kelly and state lawmakers call for resignation

By: and - February 24, 2022 4:00 pm

Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson appears during his keynote presentation at the Kansas Virtual Learning Conference. (Kansas Reflector screen Capture from Kansas State Department of Education video)

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 at 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 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 ramble 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 form 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 going 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 Watson’s 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 youth.

“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.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.