Kansas education commissioner publicly apologizes for racist story on Native Americans

Watson offered to resign, but state board imposed one-month, unpaid suspension

By: - April 12, 2022 4:09 pm
Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, apologized for an offensive remark about Native Americans that resulted in a one-month, unpaid suspension. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, apologized for an offensive remark about Native Americans that resulted in a one-month, unpaid suspension. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

TOPEKA — 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.

Randy Watson, who was suspended without pay for one month after disclosure of his racist remark, said during the Kansas State Board of Education meeting that the recollection of a story from his youth betrayed his personal 40-year career in education devoted to valuing every student. It was his first public comment about the offensive statement uttered in mid-February to people participating in a professional education conference.

“I really let some people down and hurt people with things I said. The very people and groups of kids I tried to uplift every day, I failed to do so on that occasion,” he said.

Gov. Laura Kelly joined Native American legislators and tribal leaders who called on Watson to step down from the administrative job overseeing coordination of K-12 public education in Kansas. He submitted a letter resignation, but the state Board of Education voted to reject the offer following a closed-door meeting with Watson. Instead, the 10-member board ordered the commissioner to serve a one-month suspension.

“There are a lot of kids, every teacher knows this, that go unnoticed. They are not the 4.0. They’re not in sports,” Watson said. “I dedicated my life to really trying to make sure that every child felt valued, every family was uplifted, especially kids that maybe didn’t have a family life.”

Video of Watson’s remarks obtained through an Kansas Open Records Request showed Watson speaking to the Kansas Virtual Learning Conference. He made a reference to a tornado in the 1990s before sharing with listeners that during his youth he attempted to convince relatives they ought to be more frightened of American Indians than of violent storms that might erupt in Kansas.

“I had some cousins from California. They were petrified of tornadoes,” Watson said on the video. “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.”

Watson, a former school administrator in McPherson, was hired by the state Board of Education as the commissioner in 2014. He began his teacher career at Tescott High School.

Board of Education chairman Jim Porter said the board decided remarks by Watson weren’t career ending and the board was committed to engaging in restorative justice. Porter bristled after others in state leadership publicly pressured Watson to step down, despite the state Board of Education’s responsibility for personnel decisions of executive leadership in the state education department.

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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. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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