A New Jersey school board member has 30 days to file an appeal after a state education ethics commission recommended a six–month suspension following her racially charged encounter with a South Orange police officer last year.
In its ruling, the State Department of Education’s Ethics Commission accused Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad of “trying to leverage” her position to get out of a court summons stemming from an April 2018 traffic stop in which she used “offensive and inappropriate” language toward the officer, The Intercept reported. Lawson-Muhammad, who serves on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, acknowledged she acted “irrationally” because she was upset and afraid, but the panel wasn’t trying to hear it.
Lawson-Muhammad faced calls for her resignation after dashcam video from the April 27, 2018, traffic stop went viral, showing the visibly shaken woman tell the officer that she was “scared of cops” and thought it was a “f—–g insult” he thought she was having an anxiety attack after being pulled over for speeding.
“I’m scared of cops because you guys hurt black people,” she says in the footage before threatening to “call [Orange Village President Sheena Collum]… and your skinhead cop chief, too.”
According to The Intercept, Lawson-Muhammad was driving her daughter to school when the stop occurred and admitted to the panel that she had acted “irrationally,” considering the recent stories of Black people being gunned down by police. The New Jersey mother of two was already running late getting her daughter to school and still had to circle back to get her second daughter to school in time for an exam.
What’s worse, she was struggling to find her license that the officer had requested, and her car insurance was out of date.
After apologizing for potentially speeding, Lawson-Muhammad asked the officer if he could call her daughter’s middle school to let them know her child would be late for her test. The officer declined. “OK, I’ll call Sheena right now,” she said, referring to Mrs. Sheena Collum, the Orange Village President. Lawson-Muhammad was ultimately ticketed and issued a summons to appear in court, despite her valid insurance card being with her husband, whom she called on the phone.
“For me to have to go to court, for me to have to go to court, now you want me to go to court?” she asks the officer, before again threatening to contact Collum as well as “your skinhead cop chief, too.”
The situation only went downhill from there, after which video of the incident was soon leaked to local media, as well as to the six-member South Orange Board of Trustees. The trustees unanimously voted to send the videos, along with a letter of concern to the local school board. Complaints against Lawson-Muhammad soon followed, as did calls for hers resignation.
Walter Fields, a local education advocate and a critic of the local school board, penned his own letter to the board president last May calling for Lawson-Muhammad to step down and also filed a separate ethics complaint against school board president Elizabeth Baker, whom he accused of withholding information about the video.
As reported by The Intercept, “Many in the community saw these efforts as politically motivated, as Fields was simultaneously suing the school district and fighting with the school board over other unrelated issues.”
It’s been one year since, and now the School Ethics Commission is recommending that Lawson-Muhammad take a six-month break from her position.
“Respondent’s actions and words, which she admitted were ‘irrational,’ weren’t warranted based on the facts and circumstances of the routine traffic stop,” the commission wrote in its March 27 ruling, according to The Village Green. “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,” it added.
Lawson-Muhammad had met with South Orange Police Chief, Kyle Kroll, whom she called a “skinhead,” to apologize and praised the responding officer, Shaun Horst, for his patience during their interaction. Still, the board chided her for not personally apologizing to Horst.
The ethics commission has sent its recommendation to the governor’s office, which Lawson-Muhammad has a right to appeal.
In a statement, the embattled school board member expressed “deep disappointment” with the panel’s ruling.
“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,” she said, according to The Village Green. “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.”
Watch more in the video below.