Kansas Education Board Rejects Official's Resignation Over Offensive Remark

Kansas' top education department official, Education Commissioner Randy Watson, submitted a letter of resignation following backlash to a controversial remark he made during a recent public meeting, but his resignation was rejected by the state board.

The Kansas Board of Education voted in a Friday meeting to unanimously reject Watson's resignation and instead issued a 30-day unpaid suspension set to begin on Monday, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. Watson was not present at the board meeting, but Chair Jim Porter confirmed during the meeting that Watson had submitted the letter of resignation and later said that the board met with him during a closed-door private portion of Friday's meeting.

First reported through Facebook posts of people who watched the meeting, Watson made headlines Thursday as Native American groups and other elected officials in the state called for his resignation after he allegedly said he used to tell family members visiting Kansas that they had a higher chance of being "killed by an Indian" than by a tornado.

In reality, Watson said the following, according to KSNT-TV:

"It's always fascinating, I had some cousins from California—they were petrified of tornadoes. They'd come visit us, you know, in the summer. They're like, 'Are we going to get killed by a tornado?' 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."

Watson's letter of resignation and the subsequent rejection were announced at a Friday Board of Education meeting that was called to discuss the issue and recent comment, KSNT reported. He has been education commissioner, which leads the state's education department, since 2014, when the 10-person board elected him to the position after he had served as superintendent of a local school district.

"This particular incident was serious and needed to be addressed, but we didn't feel like it was career ending," Porter said, per the Capital-Journal. "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."

"If we believe that Kansas is to lead the world in the success of each student, we need to assure that Kansas is a welcoming and safe place for each student regardless of their heritage or any other factor," Porter continued. "We also need to stop the effort to deny their history because it might offend somebody."

Watson's controversial comment came as he was comparing the situation the pandemic had created in the state's education system over the past two years to a tornado or hurricane, as it was constantly unpredictable who would be in or out of class because of COVID, KSNT reported.

The initial reports of Watson's comments drew criticism and calls for resignation from Native American activist groups and lawmakers, as well as from Kansas Governor Laura Kelly.

"There is no question that Randy Watson must resign his position immediately, given his comments last week. However, the Board of Education must also focus on ways to address these issues going forward. Let's build on this moment to celebrate diversity and ensure that all Kansas school children are treated with dignity and respect," Kelly said in a Thursday statement.

Update 2/25/22 1:15 p.m. ET: This story and headline have been updated to reflect the development that the Board of Education rejected Watson's resignation and suspended him instead.

Kansas Education Randy Watson Insensitive Remark
Kansas' top education official, Randy Watson, submitted his resignation, which was ultimately rejected, following backlash to a remark he made during a recent meeting while discussing tornadoes in the state. Above, Eureka Junior/Senior High School is pictured on April 12, 2015. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images