Two more local organizations — the NAACP Oranges & Maplewood unit and SOMA Justice — are weighing in on the NJ Department of Education School Ethics Commission ruling on a charge of ethics code violation by local South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad.
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.”
In late March, the School Ethics Commission ruled in Fields’ favor and recommended a six-month suspension for Lawson-Muhammad; Lawson-Muhammad says she is challenging the ruling and the penalty.
Early in April, the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race asked Gov. Phil Murphy to review the membership of the New Jersey State Department of Education School Ethics Commission in a letter sent to in April.
Now, the NAACP Oranges and Maplewood Unit and SOMA Justice, an activist group in Maplewood and South Orange, have both sent letters to Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey Commissioner of Education, raising concerns.
However, while the SOMA Justice letter outright rejected both the ruling and the penalty, the letter from the NAACP unit focused solely on the penalty. In a followup email, the NAACP unit leader told Village Green that the unit supported Lawson-Muhammad’s legal right to appeal the ruling.
“We are a community-based collective of parents, families, and residents that work on issues regarding race and inequality in South Orange and Maplewood,” reads the SOMA Justice letter signed by Heather Craven, Khadijah Costley White, Nina Essel, Susan Bergin, Shannon Kirk, Kelly Piccola, Jane Ann Perry, Kasia Piekarz, Melissa Renny, David Letwin, and Mia Charlene White.
“We believe the School Ethics Commission’s choice to dismiss, discount, and disbelieve Ms. Lawson-Muhammad shows a lack of awareness, an abdication of duty, a failure of understanding, and a lack of respect for the experiences of African Americans here and nationwide.”
The letter first states that the decision of the Commission should be “outright vacated” based on the fact that one of the Commission member was identified by The Intercept news site as a former law enforcement official who had shot and killed a black man (Tanella was indicted by a New York State grand jury for first-degree manslaughter; the charge was later dismissed.)
The SOMA Justice letter then continues to outline several points on which it disagrees with the premises of the decision against Lawson-Muhammad, among them:
- a charge that Fields “targets women in positions of authority” in the community and that, despite being leader of the Black Parents Workshop, he “does not represent” the views of many black parents in the community (this point was made in light of the fact that the “Commission found no evidence that Complainant filed the Complaint in bad faith solely for the purpose of harassment, delay or malicious injury.”)
- that the NJ.com Force Report supports Lawson-Muhammad’s claim that she had reason to be afraid in South Orange and mention her position in order to protect herself from harm, writing, “When a Black woman tells you she is afraid of police, believe her.”
- a challenge to the Commission’s description of “skinhead” as a “racial epithet,” contending “as a point of fact, skinheads are not a race — they are an affinity group” and writing, “this term was directed at someone who was not even involved in this stop, so we find it irrelevant to the Commission’s investigation or findings here.”
- disagreement that Lawson-Muhammad’s actions compromised the standing of the Board of Education with the public: “We are members of the public, and we disagree. Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s interaction with the officer, in and of itself, had no impact on her service as a Board of Education volunteer.”
The letter concludes: “The ruling from this board of all-male, predominantly white and Republican political appointees undermines the valid work of police reform in NJ and disregards the well-justified and well-documented concerns regarding police interactions with Black residents. The commission should better reflect the diversity of New Jersey so that it can produce determinations that are fair, thoughtful, and better represents our state. Please do the right thing and vacate this unfair and fallacious ruling. Allow our community to move on and recover.”
See the full SOMA Justice letter below.
NAACP Oranges & Maplewood Unit
In a letter dated April 19 (see below), the NAACP Oranges & Maplewood Unit states that the Commission’s penalty for Lawson-Muhammad is “excessive” and cites other rulings by the Commission to make the point. Among the examples is one in which a Board of Education member in another New Jersey town solicited campaign contributions from school district employees and received a recommended six-month suspension — the same as recommended for Lawson-Muhammad. “There is no doubt that the severity of the specifics provided in this citation warranted the six-month suspension,” wrote Tom Puryear of the NAACP Oranges & Maplewood Unit in his letter to the Commissioner. “Our organization therefore believes that difference standards are being applied to the South Orange Maplewood matter,” Puryear continues.
The NAACP unit letter continues, “Our Unit is clearly sensitive to the dangers of ‘driving while Black’ and cites the death of Sandra Bland, “Being stopped by a police officer even in the diverse community of South Orange might unnerve and create anxiety. …” The letter also notes the release of the Force Report which showed that “the South Orange police force used excessive force at a higher rate than 385 other New Jersey police departments (on the high end).”
The letter concludes, “Our Unit’s position on this matter should not be construed as a supporter of the behavior that was exhibited and displayed by Ms. Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. Our Unit’s position is that the proposed recommendation against the respondent is excessive and does not rise to the level of penalty as exhibited by the historical and legal references within the domain of New Jersey’s Commission on Ethics. As such, the Oranges & Maplewood Unit of the NAACP recommends that your office should not support the recommendation of the State Ethics Commission on this matter.”
Village Green reached out to Puryear to ask if the NAACP Unit supported the ruling and if so, what penalty would be acceptable.
Puryear responded, “The Ethics Committee determined that Ms. Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad violated specific Ethic Codes statutes. Our organization strongly believes that any imposed penalty on this matter must be consistent with past legal recommendations. In this matter, as we have stated the penalty is not consistent with past ethic recommendations.”
In response to Village Green’s request that the unit respond to Lawson-Muhammad’s decision to challenge the ruling and her argument that the Commission was ill-suited to rule due to its make-up (the panel is all male and mostly or all white), Puryear wrote:
“Since there is an appeal process our Unit would not (should not) deny Ms. Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad the right to exercise her legal rights. In order to issue our original statement, our Unit reviewed the report of the events from the original hearing. Our Unit did not investigate the make-up of the Ethics panel in order to submit our thoughts.”
“In the 21st Century America, a person of color is likely to be very alarmed by any interactions with a police officer. The recently published “Force Report” indicated that an African American was more than three times more likely to face police force than someone who is white. In South Orange that more likelihood increases to 10 times.”
“We are sure that your more informed readers are aware that recently two African Americans were fired on by two Connecticut law enforcers, for no apparent reason other that they were parked on a street and were people of color. Luckily the victims were not hurt. But why did the officers act in the manner that they did?”
“When individuals of color are questioned or stopped by a police officer, irrational behavior can easily become the reality for the individual and too often for the officers.”
[Editor’s note: Although the SOMA Justice letter asserts “an unknown officer sent an unsolicited copy of the video to Mr. Fields,” Village Green has not verified that assertion. Other community officials also had copies of the video on thumb drives prior to its public release.]