The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race is asking New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to review the membership of the New Jersey State Department of Education School Ethics Commission after it ruled that a local school board member violated State ethics code during a traffic stop last year and recommended a 6-month suspension.
South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad came under fire last spring for her actions when she was pulled over for speeding in South Orange. 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.”
Although Lawson-Muhammad apologized for her actions and said she was working with the South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll “to help heal our community,” Maplewood resident and Black Parents Workshop leader Walter Fields filed an complaint with the School Ethics Commission saying Lawson-Muhammad had used her “privilege or civic standing to invoke [her] supposed immunity from being held to the same standards as an average citizen.”
This March, the Commission ruled in Field’s favor 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”).”
In addition, the Commission stated in its ruling, “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 maintained 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.”
Lawson-Muhammad has stated that she will challenge the Commission’s ruling and recommendation. Both she and the Coalition on Race have questioned the Commission’s fitness to rule in her case due to the makeup of the Commission and a possible conflict on the part of one Commissioner.
“We question the commission’s ability to give due consideration of the perspectives of people of color and women, and consequently to rule fairly and without bias in the case involving SOMSD BOE member Stephanie Lawson Muhammad,” reads a letter from the Coalition on Race to Murphy. The letter is signed by Coalition Chair Robert Marchman and Executive Director Nancy Gagnier. “A significant amount of the Board’s written opinion and deliberation on the recommended length of suspension focused on their board assessment of whether or not a black woman feared a police officer. As not a single member has the life experience of a woman or person of color, their systematic dismissiveness of those claims displays bias.”
The Coalition also wrote, “[T]he revelation, if accurate, that one of the commission was in law enforcement and was indicted for first-degree manslaughter after shooting a black man in the back in 2002 (the charge was later dismissed), betrays the commission’s extreme poor judgement in allowing that member to deliberate on this case.”
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.”
Walter Fields, who filed the complaint, called the Coalition’s letter to Murphy a “fishing expedition,” and questioned why the Coalition was taking a stand on this issue when he felt that it had failed to lead or been absent on other issues of racial equality in the community. He also asserted that the Coalition does not reveal in its letter to Murphy that Lawson-Muhammad has served as the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education’s liaison to the Coalition on Race (Lawson-Muhammad is listed as an ex officio member of the Coalition’s Board of Trustees on its website), calling it a “clear conflict of interest.” Fields also noted that the Coalition receives annual contributions from both South Orange and Maplewood townships and wrote: “As a 22-year resident of Maplewood I will write a letter to my township government demanding that not a penny of my taxes be used to support the Coalition on Race.” See Fields’ full response to the Coalition’s letter below.
Read the full letter from the Coalition on Race to Gov. Murphy here: