After an executive session of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education last night, Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad read a statement further apologizing for her actions during a traffic stop on April 27 — but standing firm in her resolve to remain on the BOE and not resign.
In a police dashcam video of the traffic stop, Lawson-Muhammad identifies herself to the police officer as a member of the Board of Education, mentions South Orange Village President Sheena Collum by first name and refers to the South Orange police chief as a “skinhead.”
In her apology last night, Lawson-Muhammad reiterated her regret for her “uncharacteristic behavior” and her “commitment” to work with Chief Kroll “to help heal our community” — but also alluded to possible politicization of the incident in her comments, saying, “We win by showing that we will not allow our community to be torn apart by those that seek to divide – that together we will work to turn tragedy into triumph.” (See full statement below.)
The traffic stop incident became public through two letters sent to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker by Walter Fields of SOMA Black Parents Workshop. Fields, Baker and Lawson-Muhammad have been known to clash in the past. Fields campaigned against Baker in the BOE elections last fall as he managed the campaigns of two rival candidates. At one point, Fields apologized for the distribution (though not the content) of a negative flier attacking Baker at Columbia High School. Fields has also clashed with Lawson-Muhammad and her husband Khalil Muhammad over the display of slave posters as part of the elementary school curriculum, with Muhammad defending the curriculum in one NJ.com OpEd and Fields posting an opposing NJ.com OpEd.
Fields has repeatedly called for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation since he brought the traffic stop incident to light. He is also calling for an investigation into Baker’s handling of her knowledge of the incident, asking that she temporarily step down as Board President and for her possible resignation. Fields has indicated that Black Parents Workshop will be filing complaints with the NJ Department of Education Ethics Commission this week against Baker and Lawson-Muhammad. (See letter below.)
Board member Johanna Wright has also questioned why she and other Board members were not informed about the video by Baker; Baker has countered that she has been following the advice of counsel.
Community members outside of Fields have raised questions about Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior during the traffic stop. The South Orange Board of Trustees unanimously voted to send the video to Baker and expressed their “great concern” in a memo dated May 7.
However, the Community Coalition on Race and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum have called for forgiveness and healing after Lawson-Muhammad’s initial apology and her meeting with South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll on Wednesday May 16.
At last night’s meeting, three community members took to the microphone during the public speaking portion of the meeting to defend and support Lawson-Muhammad. They included Ronni Schwartz reading a letter on behalf of SOMA Justice, Rosemary McLaughlin reading a letter on behalf of PARES, and Rhea Beck asking that the community move on from the incident and focus on the plan to improve facilities and desegregate the district:
“The small mindedness evident in the past few days is heartbreaking; the blatant partisanship is for lack of a better word — tacky. You demean your work, indeed you demean community discourse when you engage in this behavior. I beg you to stop it. Every day you allow this to continue, you diminish your constituents’ trust in you. Do better.”
Read Lawson-Muihammad’s full statement here:
I want to sincerely apologize that my uncharacteristic behavior displayed in the police video from April 27th has alarmed some of the residents in the district and community that I love. I made those statements out of the stress of the moment. I did not make those statements to attain a privilege. I ran for the board of ed four years ago to make a difference in this community. The work I’ve done alongside my fellow board members over these last four years is vast and our evolution to focus on common goals and develop the resolve to yield results has been astounding. We are on the edge of moving the big rocks that have cluttered the path for so long.
Many have reached out to offer support and encouragement during this time and for that I am truly thankful. I want to reiterate how earnest I am about working with Chief Kroll, a commitment we made together coming out of our restorative meeting – to help heal our community. We have begun plans to work with community stakeholders to build stronger bonds and greater trust for the entire community with the goal of kicking off this work the first week of June.
The Community Coalition on Race and Reverend Terry Richardson have provided overwhelming support in helping us get to this point. I am blessed to live in a community with those that are committed to this work and willing to give of themselves in times like this.
I stand committed more than ever to continue in my role as a champion for equity, the voice for the voiceless, and a believer that we can do the hard work necessary to make this the district our children deserve.
We win by showing that we will not allow our community to be torn apart by those that seek to divide – that together we will work to turn tragedy into triumph.
The moment of my life you saw on that video does not define me… and for those who are not familiar with my work, I hope to earn your trust and support.
Statement made by Rhea Beck (leadership member of PARES:
“I come tonight simply to ask the Board to focus the duties you were elected to fulfill. We have before us the real work of Integration, facilities upgrades, school leadership, curriculum updates and alignment, as well as a search for a new superintendent.
Disappointingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, some members of the BOE seem determined to distract from the real issues before us, using an incident that happened between a BOE member and a police officer as fodder to foment attacks, leveraging the traumatic experience of an African American woman as an opportunity to advance their own misguided agendas. Yet, these same voices remain silent about the fact that our district phone lines were flooded with calls by alt right activists from around the country making vicious threats against one of their colleagues. This is not the work community members elected you to do. The small mindedness evident in the past few days is heartbreaking- the blatant partisanship is for lack of a better word-tacky. You demean your work, indeed you demean community discourse when you engage in this behavior. I beg you to stop it. Every day you allow this to continue, you diminish your constituents’ trust in you. Do better.”
Video of Rhea Beck’s statement via PARES Facebook page:
Press release this morning from Walter Fields of Black Parents Workshop: