Kansas education commissioner suspended, nearly ousted, for childhood anecdote about Indians

The Kansas commissioner of education has been suspended a month without pay, and nearly lost his job, after recounting a childhood story about his California cousins’ ignorance of life among Native Americans on the plains.

Randy Watson, state commissioner of education since 2015, had spoken in a video conference of how his cousins from California were “petrified” of possibly encountering tornadoes in visits to Kansas – and how he joked to them that their real fear should be about “Indian” raids. It was a joke they naively took seriously, he said.

“They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that. But you’ve got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’ And they really thought that, you know? Growing up in California, I guess you don’t know much of the history of Kansas.”

Though she has no authority over his office, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly joined Native American leaders in the state calling for Watson’s resignation in retaliation for his remarks. He did offer his resignation to the State Board of Education, which unanimously rejected it Friday and instead slapped him with a 30-day unpaid suspension.

Watson’s anachronistic anecdote “was serious and needed to be addressed,” said board chair Jim Porter, a 47-year veteran of education, “but we didn’t feel like it was career-ending. We believe in restorative justice. We believe that it is absolutely critical that we use this as a learning and teaching opportunity. And we felt (strongly) that we are better able to do that under his leadership.”

Others, while not necessarily defending Watson’s inartful comments, were more concerned that the real lesson in the episode is that one’s livelihood can be put into jeopardy by offending others unwittingly and unintentionally. It’s not a new lesson, either.

“I don’t think he meant offense by what he was saying,” Kansas House Education Committee chair Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, told The Lion. “It’s the world we live in, where people are always trying to look to take offense. That’s the cancel-culture mob we live in today. I disagree with that whole culture. It’s disappointing to live in a world like that.”

Board members said education officials around the state had been urging the board not to let Watson go. Porter also noted that several state legislators have been convicted of actual crimes and not lost their positions.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Steve Noble, superintendent at Seaman USD 345, told the media, “and as educators perhaps we should know and understand that better than most because we’re in the learning environment.”

Huebert wondered if the governor, who he feels sought to cynically campaign on Watson’s stumble, should also lose her job for a verbal gaffe. “I would love to hear Gov. Kelly explain if she should be held to the same standard that she’s holding Randy Watson to.

“I know that I probably have said stupid things. And I’m grateful that God is merciful to me.”