District, teachers union investigating undercover video of union leader

Steve Wentz began a three-year term as president of United Teachers of Wichita in June.
Steve Wentz began a three-year term as president of United Teachers of Wichita in June. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita school district and teachers union officials say they are investigating a hidden-camera video in which a local union president says he threatened a student with physical violence.

The video, published online Tuesday by Project Veritas – a controversial, conservative-leaning organization – appears to feature footage of Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, at a hotel bar during a conference in Orlando, Fla., in June 2015.

In it, Wentz describes an episode with a former student in which he asked the student to stay after class.

“I go over, shut the door, lock it, pull the shades down … and I go, ‘Do you really want to kick my ass? Do you really think I’m a (expletive)?” Wentz says in the video. “Son, go for it – and I’ll give you the first shot.”

Asked whether he said that to a student, Wentz can be seen in the video saying, “I’ve done this more than once. And I said, ‘But I will guarantee you, I will kick your (expletive) ass.’ 

Wentz would not comment on the video Tuesday but referred calls to officials with the Kansas National Education Association.

Marcus Baltzell, director of communications for KNEA, discredited the video and called Project Veritas president James O’Keefe a “well-funded, right-wing attack dog … who has no credit in any kind of journalistic world.”

Union officials are investigating the allegations, Baltzell said.

“We’re working through this right now. We’re going to do our due diligence,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s very simple: We don’t condone any of that behavior at all, and we would take very swift measures to investigate and deal with something like that internally if we were to find out that something like that were true or accurate.”

O’Keefe and Project Veritas received national attention in 2009 for a video aimed at the community organizing group ACORN, in which a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute sought advice on how to avoid charges of tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution.

The New York-based group has published other undercover projects aimed at Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio and the publishers of school textbooks based on Common Core State Standards.

Wendy Johnson, spokeswoman for Wichita public schools, said district officials were made aware of the video Tuesday afternoon. Wentz is a school district employee.

“We’ll handle this like we would handle any situation that involves an allegation or potential allegation we need to investigate,” Johnson said. “We will follow district protocols and go from there.”

Officials with Project Veritas said Tuesday’s video is the fourth in a series of undercover stories focused on teachers unions.

Stephen Gordon, spokesman for Project Veritas, said the group’s reporters go undercover in order to get information they wouldn’t otherwise get.

The woman who filmed Wentz in the hotel bar in Florida posed as a teacher at the National Council of Urban Education Associations conference, Gordon said. A reporter who confronted Wentz months later in a Wichita coffee shop claimed to be the uncle of a former student.

Wentz, 56, began a three-year term as president of United Teachers of Wichita last June.

Prior to his election, he taught psychology and world history for 25 years at Southeast High School. As part of a requirement for union officers to keep their district benefits, Wentz spends half his time at UTW headquarters and half serving as a substitute, or “roving teacher,” in Wichita classrooms.

United Teachers of Wichita represents the district’s 4,000 teachers.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias