A complaint has been filed against South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad with the NJ Department of Education School Ethics Commission. According to Walter Fields of Black Parents Workshop, the complaint was filed on Wednesday, May 23. Fields reported to Village Green that he would file another complaint against Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker on Wednesday, May 30.
Field reported that since complaints must be mailed, “it will likely take a week before they are posted on the Commission’s website.”
Fields was among a handful of speakers who took to the microphone during public comments at a special meeting of the Board of Education on Wednesday, May 23 to voice concerns about Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior during a traffic stop and Baker’s handling of her knowledge of the incident. Fields announced that he had filed the complaint against Lawson-Muhammad during his comments at the meeting.
Two nights before, three speakers made comments supportive of Lawson-Muhammad and critical of those who called for her resignation. Lawson-Muhammad herself again apologized for her behavior during a traffic stop on April 27, during which she referred to South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll as a “skinhead cop chief,” and also expressed that the incident should not be used to “divide” the community.
On May 23, most speakers attending the meeting once again were in attendance to support Seth Boyden Principal Damion Frye. Some also spoke on behalf of Lawson Muhammad. Unlike the May 21 public speaks, however, there were a few speakers who were critical of Lawson-Muhammad, including Fields.
During his turn at the microphone, Fields dismissed Lawson-Muhammad’s apology, saying that apologies were not relevant after “you’ve been exposed.”
“There is a standard of ethics that public officials are expected to abide by. We can have an ongoing debate in this community and it doesn’t mean that you are distracted from your work because if you can’t do two things at once, there’s a problem.” Fields called for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation.
In a press release on May 22, Fields explained that he was calling for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation and Baker’s removal as Board president. Fields wrote that Lawson-Muhammad should resign because she used her “privilege or civic standing to invoke [her] supposed immunity from being held to the same standards as an average citizen.” In a press release dated May 21, Fields accused Baker of using her position to “conceal information and deceive the public regarding the incident.”
[Updated to note: Fields, through Black Parents Workshop, is also currently suing the district, citing “violations of federal and state laws, including Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Article I, Paragraph 5 of the New Jersey Constitution.” Fields contends that the district has not met the standards stipulated in a resolution between the district and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights announced in October 2014. Read that resolution here.]
During public speaks on May 23, district parent Sabina Hack said she was “dismayed” both by Ms. Lawson Muhammad’s “bad behavior” as well as the “political circus that has ensued by both her supporters and detractors.” Hack noted that “while Ms. Lawson-Muhammad was speeding her child to school, our community’s children were walking to school.” She said there was “no cause and no excuse for prejudice against the South Orange Police Department” and proposed developing curriculum “teaching children to respect, value and trust law enforcement in order to combat the pervasive national prejudice against police that Ms. Lawson-Muhammad so disappointingly displayed.”
District parent Morrisa da Silva focused on what she called Lawson-Muhammad’s lack of transparency. “Had she been up front, the media frenzy may not have reached the pitch it did,” said da Silva, who added that more transparency from Lawson-Muhammad “would have gone a long way to restoring trust.” Da Silva said that she felt that the lack of transparency continued when Board President Elizabeth Baker “failed to inform” some board members of the incident after she was made aware, causing those board members to be “blindsided.” Da Silva asked the “whole board to come to grips” and choose how to “reset” and “get back to the very important work at hand.”
“Our kids are depending on you,” said da Silva.
Some other speakers where more forgiving of Lawson-Muhammad. Jocelyn Ryan said that the community was divided by “those who can understand a black woman responding in panic and fear at a traffic stop and those who can’t.” She likewise asked the Board to get back to the work at hand.
“Desegrate our schools,” said Ryan. “Move forward with repairs to our crumbling buildings.” She also asked the board to vote no on the school security measure ALICE.
David Letwin asked that “the community use the incident as an opening for an honest and searching discussion of how persistent white supremacy and attendant police violence .. . can inform interaction between people of color and the police.” He said saw “absolutely nothing” that would cause him to call for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation.