SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — This morning, seven months after the School Ethics Commission recommended Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad be suspended from the South Orange Maplewood School Board for two ethics violations, the New Jersey Education Commissioner issued his ruling concerning her appeal. Dr. Lamont Repollet denied Lawson-Muhammad’s appeal but reduced her suspension from six months to 30 days.
Lawson-Muhammad emailed TAPinto SOMA directly that her first reaction to the ruling was satisfaction. “I was happy that the Commissioner affirmed and validated my fear. And I was relieved that this was finally over,” she said.
The Oct. 31 ruling is timed less than a week before election day; Lawson-Muhammad is running for her third term. When asked how this ruling will affect her chances, she said, “I hope the community will vote on my record and on my commitment to equity in this district. As the Commissioner notes, more than a year ago I apologized for what happened, and now I’m ready to move forward. Hopefully, on Wednesday, I can continue the hard work of advocating for equity in our schools and supporting the success of the new superintendent.”
The case stems from a video, taped by a police dashcam during traffic stop in April of last year, in which Lawson-Muhammad told Officer Shaun Horst she was a school board member, mentioned the name of the South Orange Village President, and directed a racist insult at the South Orange Police Chief.
TAPinto SOMA was the first with this story on May 16, 2018. The video of the April 27 traffic stop was leaked to writer Joe Strupp, who has never revealed his source. Other news outlets then used the Freedom Of Information Act to receive the video as well, and soon the story went national.
The ethics case was filed by Maplewood resident Walter Fields; it accused her of violating the ethics clauses which state a board member may not “take any private action that may compromise the board” and may not “use the schools for personal gain.”
Fields said in a written statement, “I am pleased with the Commissioner’s decision and his determination that Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s actions and behaviors are in violation of state ethics law. I take no issue with the Commissioner’s ruling. The Commissioner’s decision to reduce the suspension is within his purview but what remains clear is that the School Ethics Commission was correct in finding Ms. Lawson-Muhammad violated two provisions of the School Ethics Act.”
Repollet wrote in his ruling that the determination by the SEC “was not unreasonable” and yet “while in no way minimizing the appellant’s conduct, the Commissioner finds that the SEC’s recommended penalty of a six-month suspension is not supported by the evidence in the record and is inconsistent with penalties recommended by the SEC in other cases.”
Lawson-Muhammad issued an e-mailed response statement this afternoon in which she said she was thankful: “I am very grateful to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education for his ruling this morning. It is a fair penalty and confirms that the initial ruling was 'unduly harsh.' The Commissioner found my concern for my personal safety as a black woman during a traffic stop 'very compelling' and found that the SEC did not give due consideration to my fear…. I also value his affirmation and validation of the fear many people feel in America today when confronted by police, especially black people.
“Finally, I am relieved that I will be able to put this behind me after a short suspension from the Board. I am grateful to the ACLU-NJ for appealing the initial ruling on my behalf. And I thank the NAACP Oranges and Maplewood, the Community Coalition on Race, PARES, SOMa Justice, my family, friends and so many community members for their support. I look forward to continuing to build on the work towards equity we have begun in the district and to supporting the new superintendent as we implement the Integration and Innovation Plan.”
Repollet indeed called the SEC’s assessment of Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior harsh and added, “the weight afforded to the aggravating factors by the SEC was disproportionate to that afforded to the mitigating circumstances in light of the nature of the offense.” The mitigating circumstances, he explained, were her stated concern for her personal safety as a black woman during a traffic stop, her stress about getting her kids to school, and her irrational response to her interaction with Officer Horst. He also considered that her testimony revealed “that the appellant was contrite, recognizing that she was anxious and overreacted during the traffic stop, and she unequivocally conceded that she was rude to Officer Horst.”
At the end of the 11-page decision, Repollet wrote, “Although a six-month suspension is unduly harsh, the Commissioner agrees with the SEC that the proven conduct necessitates some form of penalty. The traffic-stop video reveals that the appellant displayed questionable judgment in referencing her Board membership and her relationship with the South Orange Village president. Further, the use of inappropriate language toward Office Horst and offensively referring to the police chief as a “skinhead” had a detrimental effect on the Board and the community. Therefore, the Commissioner finds that a 30-day suspension is a sufficient penalty to impress upon the appellant the significance of her errors in judgment displayed in this matter.
"Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that respondent is hereby suspended from the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education for thirty (30) days as a school official having found to have violated the School Ethics Act.” Lawson-Muhammad said her understanding is that the suspension will begin at the next school board meeting, which is Nov. 18.