South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad says she will fight a ruling that she violated sections of the state ethics code — as well as the recommended sanction that she be suspended from the Board of Education for six months — saying it disregards and “erases” her reality as a Black woman.
In March, the New Jersey State Department of Education School Ethics Commission ruled that Lawson-Muhammad violated State ethics code governing board of education members during a traffic stop last year and recommended a 6-month suspension.
Lawson-Muhammad came under fire for her actions when she was pulled over for speeding in South Orange on April 27, 2018. As seen in dashcam video, Lawson-Muhammad identified herself to the police officer as a member of the Board of Education. Later in the traffic stop, she mentioned South Orange Village President Sheena Collum by first name and referred to the South Orange police chief as a “skinhead.”
The Commission ruled that “in addition to unethically invoking her Board position and relationship with [South Orange Village President] Ms. [Sheena] Collum, Respondent repeatedly used offensive and inappropriate language (‘that was a f–king insult’ and ‘you guys hurt Black people’), and also admittedly used a racial epithet to describe the Chief of Police (‘your skinhead cop Chief”).”
The ruling stated, “Respondent’s actions and words, which she admitted were ‘irrational,’ were not warranted based on the facts and circumstances of the routine traffic stop” and that Lawson-Muhammad “attempted to escalate the situation” and also failed to recognize how the use of “skinhead” as a person in her position “could also have an impact on the reputation of the Board and its members.”
In a statement sent to Village Green on March 27, Lawson-Muhammad wrote of the ruling: “We are deeply disappointed with the decision issued by the Ethics Commission. Their action delegitimizes, disregards and belittles the very real and justified fear, anxiety, disorientation and even trauma that is nearly always experienced during even a routine traffic stop, particularly if that motorist is African American. The commission members were completely ill-suited to judge my fear and the real intentions of my words. They lacked corroborating evidence, expertise and, most especially, personal experience. I am in the process of considering my options.”
Lawson-Muhammad first indicated her decision to fight the ruling in an article in The Intercept last week. She told The Intercept, “It’s just wrong and sets bad precedent,” she said. “It erases reality for me as a black woman and to have people that are like ‘I don’t believe you’ is just completely unacceptable.”
The Intercept reported that the School Ethics Commission was all male, mostly white and that its members were all appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie (see the list of commissioners on the School Ethics Commission webpage here).
The Intercept also reported that it was also investigating whether or not Commission member Jude Tanella is the same Jude Tanella who was “a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was indicted by a New York State grand jury for first-degree manslaughter after shooting a black man in the back in 2002 … a charge [that was] was later dismissed by a federal judge who said Tanella had acted reasonably in the situation.”
Read Village Green’s report on the School Ethics Commission ruling here: