Kansas leader criticized over ‘red shirts’ remark

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A Kansas legislative leader’s comment about being uncomfortable with “a lot of red shirts” at the Statehouse drew sharp criticism Friday from teachers, but he said he was referring to British troops during the American Revolution, not recent protests by educators.

The Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, scoffed at House Speaker Ray Merrick’s explanation that he meant to use the word “redcoats.” Merrick said in a statement Friday that he was alluding to the history behind the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which protects gun ownership rights.

Dozens of educators wearing red T-shirts packed Statehouse hallways and the House and Senate galleries in April, as lawmakers approved a measure ending guaranteed tenure for public school teachers. Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, backed the proposal taking effect in July.

Merrick made his comment Thursday, in response to reporters’ questions about another policy, also taking effect in July, allowing people with concealed carry permits to bring their weapons into the Statehouse. Merrick was asked whether some visitors would be uncomfortable that others might be armed.

“I’m uncomfortable with people being here for other reasons,” Merrick said. “A lot of red shirts have been here that I was uncomfortable with.”

Mark Desetti, a KNEA lobbyist, said it’s “patently absurd” to suggest that the protesting teachers should have inspired fear or have been considered dangerous. He said Merrick’s comment is another episode in a “war on teachers” waged by him and fellow GOP conservatives.

“They just feel the need to marginalize and eliminate a dissenting voice,” Desetti said. “It’s offensive.”

GOP conservatives said the anti-tenure measure would make it easier to remove incompetent teachers from classrooms, improve teaching and help students. But the KNEA and other critics of the measure said teachers are losing protections that allow them to serve as strong advocates for their students, and prevent arbitrary firings.

Merrick’s comment was first reported by the Lawrence Journal-World and inspired critical tweets.

But Merrick said in a statement Friday: “It was a reference to the Revolutionary War and the Redcoats, which was the catalyst for the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. I regret that my words were ill-timed and misspoken.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and a teacher, called Merrick’s explanation “pathetic.”

He also said that after the House approved the anti-tenure measure, Merrick taunted a group of teachers in red T-shirts by walking through them and holding up his cellphone while it played the Marine Hymn.

“He has little respect for teachers, and I find it hard to believe that he simply ‘misspoke,’” Hensley said.

But Merrick spokeswoman Rachel Whitten said the House Speaker, a former Marine, uses the hymn as his ring tone. She said he received a call while walking through the group of teachers, causing the ring tone to go off and, “the phone never came out of the case on his belt.”

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