The New Jersey State Department of Education School Ethics Commission has ruled that South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad violated State ethics code governing board of education members during a traffic stop last year and has recommended a 6-month suspension from the Board for her actions.
In a statement (see it in full below), Lawson-Muhammad said she was disappointed in the ruling and was considering her options. According to the Commission, Lawson-Muhammad can appeal both the recommended sanction and the overall ruling.
The Commission also took the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education to task for “its failure to address the incident” (see page 29 of the 31-page ruling attached below) last year.
Walter Fields, the Maplewood resident who brought the complaint to the Commission, issued a statement with the ruling, calling for the Board of Education to remove Lawson-Muhammad from her position on the Board (see statement attached below).
Village Green contacted the district’s spokesperson, former Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker and current President Annemarie Maini for comment. Baker and Maini replied with nearly identical statements that they “cannot respond at this point” and have sought advice from the BOE’s legal counsel on next steps.
In responses to a separate complaint filed by Fields last year, the Commission found that Baker did not violate the ethics code in her handling of the incident (see more below).
Lawson-Muhammad came under fire for her actions when she was pulled over for speeding in South Orange on April 27. As seen in dashcam video, Lawson-Muhammad identified herself to the police officer as a member of the Board of Education. Later, she mentions South Orange Village President Sheena Collum by first name and refers to the South Orange police chief as a “skinhead.”
The Commission states on page 24 of the ruling signed by Robert W. Bender, Chairperson of the School Ethics Commission, that “the Commission finds that Complainant has proven, by a preponderance of the competent and credible evidence (testimonial and documentary), that Respondent violated N.J.S.A.18A:12-24.1(f).”
The Commission states on page 26 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 continues, “Respondent’s actions and words, which she admitted were ‘irrational,’ were not warranted based on the facts and circumstances of the routine traffic stop. In addition the use of such language by a sitting Board member, who is charged with advocating for all students, could give the impression that she, and potentially the Board, is biased and/or not impartial. As such, the import of this epithet could cause certain parents to feel as if the Board (and its individual members) cannot, and will not, serve the needs of their children.”
The Commission also wrote the 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.” The Commission also found Lawson-Muhammad’s public statements inadequate in accepting responsibility for the interaction: “Although Respondent appeared apologetic for how others would view the Chief of Police based on her comment, she did not appear to recognize that her words could also negatively impact the public’s perception of the Board and its members.” It also said that she had never actually apologized to the police officer who initiated the stop although she “thanked him for his patience” and that she did not seek to make amends until the incident was about to become public.
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.”
Note: that the School Ethics Commission webpage currently lists 8 members, all male, and one vacancy. However, the website identifies this list “as of December 2017.”
Regarding the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, on page 29, the Commission writes that it “feels compelled to note that it is disheartened by the Board’s failure to address the incident on April 27, 2018, with the public, especially since the Board President received a ‘Confidential Communication’ from the Village Trustees expressing their ‘concerns’ with Respondent’s Actions. Even if the Board determined, in consultation with Counsel, that Respondents’s actions were not in her capacity as a Board member — a conclusion which the Commission finds was incorrect — it could have still taken an opportunity to emphasize to the public that Respondent’s actions were inappropriate, were not condoned by the Board, and were not representative of the Board or its individual members. The Board’s failure to take any public action contributed to Complainant’s stated need to file a Complaint with the Commission.”
However, a separate complaint filed by Fields last year alleging ethics violations by then-Board President Elizabeth Baker was dismissed by the Commission, which wrote in its October 31, 2018 decision, in part, “Even if Ms. Lawson-Mohammad [sic] were a ‘friend’ of Respondent’s, there is also nothing in the Complaint evidencing what ‘benefit’ Ms. Lawson-Mohammad received from Respondent’s actions because, as indicated in the Complaint, the incident and memo were known to the Board (even if the memo itself was not ‘shared’ with two individual Board members), and the matter was acknowledged and addressed at a public Board meeting.” A request for sanctions against Fields by Baker was dismissed as his Complaint was ruled to be “not frivolous.”
In issuing its recommendations regarding Lawson-Muhammad, the Commission did note mitigating factors such as her 5-year term of service without previous ethics charges, as well as current Board of Education President Annemarie Maini’s description of Lawson-Muhammad and her service on the Board in positive terms: “Absent the mitigating factors … the Commission would have recommended a more severe penalty.”
Lawson-Muhammad has 13 days to take exception to the sanctions and 30 days to appeal the Commission’s findings.
March 26, 7:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with comment from BOE President Annemarie Maini and Former President Elizabeth Baker.
March 27, 1:22 p.m. This article has been updated with a response from BOE member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad.
March 28, 10:49 a.m. This article has been updated with a link to a list of School Ethics Commission members.
Audio from the November 27, 2019 hearing: