Steve Wentz, president of UTW, United Teachers of Wichita (April 25, 2016) The Wichita Eagle File photo
Steve Wentz, president of UTW, United Teachers of Wichita (April 25, 2016) The Wichita Eagle File photo

Education

Wichita teachers union president sues outlets over undercover video

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

June 26, 2017 02:59 PM

UPDATED June 26, 2017 05:45 PM

A Wichita teachers union president who was the focus of a hidden-camera video in which he said he threatened a student with physical violence has filed a federal lawsuit against the outlets that created and published the video.

Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, filed a 66-page lawsuit in the U.S. District Court’s Middle District of Florida on Friday against Project Veritas and Breitbart News, citing an undercover video that he says damaged his and other teachers’ reputations.

“It’s a lie, and it is something that needs to be addressed,” Wentz said Monday.

“When you have people like this that take your words and twist them and edit videos and accuse you of onerous things … this type of vitriol needs to be addressed,” he said. “This is not journalism.”

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Last summer, a video published online by Project Veritas featured footage of Wentz at a hotel bar during a conference in Orlando, Fla., in 2015.

The video and an accompanying article subsequently were published on Breitbart.com.

In the video, Wentz described 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 … ? 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 in the video whether he said that to a student, Wentz can be heard saying, “I’ve done this more than once. And I said, ‘But I will guarantee you, I will kick your … ’ ”

The complaint filed Friday says the hidden-camera video, part of a series on teachers unions, is “deceptive” and “subversive.”

The lawsuit calls Project Veritas and its president, James O’Keefe, “masters of propaganda” and demands that the organization destroy all videos taken of Wentz, remove the material from its website and award the teacher “his costs, and any other relief as is just and proper.”

Project Veritas spokesman Stephen Gordon said he learned about the lawsuit on Monday afternoon.

“Our position is, we caught him on video saying things,” Gordon said. “Which one of Mr. Wentz’s statements that are recorded on video is he claiming he didn’t say?”

Wentz, 57, began a three-year term as president of United Teachers of Wichita in 2015. Prior to his election, he taught psychology and world history for 25 years at Southeast High School.

Wentz’s version

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According to the lawsuit, a woman at a hotel bar during the 2015 conference told Wentz she was a teacher and began talking about “misbehaving, out-of-control teenage boys.”

Wentz says he told “a particularly memorable anecdote of an incident when he had feigned force, or used ‘tough love,’ to connect with, and eventually help a troubled student,” the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, a student in one of Wentz’s classes during the 1990s threatened to steal a DVD player from the classroom and later threatened Wentz with physical violence. After class, Wentz related the comments featured on the Project Veritas video, the lawsuit says.

“The student was silent and looked a little sheepish,” the lawsuit says.

But Wentz offered the student another option, the lawsuit says: “Come to class prepared, do your work, don’t be a jerk, and you’ll find out I’ll be your best friend.”

Years later, according the lawsuit, Wentz ran into the former student, who gave Wentz a hug.

“The former student asked if Wentz remembered that time he said he could kick his … ” the lawsuit says.

“Wentz began to apologize, but the former student laughed and said it was ‘the best thing that ever happened to him’ because it straightened him out and set him on the right path.”

On Monday, Wentz said portions of the hidden-camera video – published by Project Veritas under the headline “Teachers Union President Admits to Abusing Children” – did not accurately reflect the anecdote or his overall message.

“Sometimes doing the right thing means being brutally honest with some of these kids, which may ruffle feathers and upset people,” Wentz said.

“But I believe these kids that really have never had an adult care about them are starving, emotionally and psychologically, for someone to tell them the truth,” he said. “Someone who’ll come right out and say, ‘I care enough about you that I’m going to tell you how this story’s going to end, if you want to hear it.’ ”

District investigation

Following the publication of the hidden-camera video last year, Wichita school district officials said they were investigating the incident but would not share any specifics about the investigation.

Wentz continues to serve as president of United Teachers of Wichita, which represents the district’s 4,100 teachers, counselors and other certified employees.

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.

According to Wentz’s lawsuit, Project Veritas and O’Keefe “knew or should have known that their video was defamatory” but published it “with actual malice … and with a conscious disregard for Wentz’s rights and the truth.”

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 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.

O’Keefe also is facing a $1 million federal lawsuit over his group’s undercover video sting against Democratic organizations and activists in the weeks before last year’s presidential election.

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