The following is from the leadership of the community group SOMA Justice: Addressing Race and Inequality:
Dear Members of the SOMSD Board of Education and South Orange Village President,
We, the leadership of SOMA Justice and the undersigned, have reviewed the allegations against Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad by the Black Parents Workshop in a letter dated May 16, 2018. We strenuously disagree with the characterization of Lawson-Muhammad’s actions in that letter. We urge the Board not to request or accept her or Elizabeth Baker’s resignation, and to permit Lawson-Muhammad to resolve any remaining issues with the South Orange Police Department in her personal capacity.
Lawson-Muhammad is a long time resident of South Orange and an involved parent in our school district. She has had an excellent record of service on the Board since 2014. In that role, she has been a voice for concerns of students of color and a dedicated volunteer.
We encourage you to view Lawson-Muhammad’s interaction during the traffic stop in the context of our country’s current climate of violence against people of color. As her child was in the car, the fear heard in her voice is understandable. Police officers repeatedly kill innocent Black people, including women and children, without repercussion. Videos of those incidents are plastered across social media and news sites.
Moreover, violence by police officers is not a distant, theoretical concern. Maplewood officers who physically assaulted SOMSD students on July 5, 2016 have still not been held publicly accountable or even been identified for their actions.
In this context, we view Lawson-Muhammad’s reference to her Board service in her interaction with Officer Horst as an effort to show him that she is an upstanding member of our community — that she is one of us — in an effort to protect her and her child’s safety. She was scared and anxious. The officer did not need to do anything inappropriate in order for her fear to be valid.
Much has been made of other comments, including a personal insult and her intention to notify the mayor of this interaction with police. We remind both the Board and our fellow community members that we all have the right to notify our local representatives with concerns about police. Her position as a BOE member does not eliminate her rights as a resident and taxpayer. Any personal insults should, we believe, be worked out privately with those most affected.
Additionally, we ask the Board to investigate, and to join us in calling for South Orange to investigate, how the Black Parents Workshop obtained this video. We are also interested in to whom the South Orange Police Department and South Orange Township released this video and their motivations thereof. We further call for an investigation into any legal or ethical breaches that resulted in the public release of this video, as it included both the name and an image of her minor child (a student in the SOMSD).
On a regular basis, police officers deal with private and sensitive matters in regards to their work and emergency calls with residents. We must all be worried about any precedent in which police release videos of interactions with residents who may be viewed as adversaries, political or otherwise. We are also concerned that Lawson-Muhammad’s advocacy for students related to police could make her a target.
SOMA Justice thanks each Board Member for their service and hopes that this incident does not continue to distract from the important work the Board has undertaken to address inequities and bias in our schools.
Khadijah Costley White, Ph.D.
Nina Essel, MSW, MS Ed
Susan Bergin, JD, MPA
Shannon Kirk, MAT TSWD
Jane Ann Perry, MA
Kasia Piekarz, MBA
Melissa Renny, MBA
This letter has been signed by well over 200 people online at: