The most fundamental quality of any public official should be integrity because it breeds character and a sense of public service over self. There can be fundamental disagreements on matters of public policy, but the integrity of a public official should be beyond reproach. It’s why the re-election effort of School Board Member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad is both sad and troubling. It reeks of a moral cluelessness that can only be described as a sense of entitlement to her position. If there is any real concern for the integrity of our school district, voters should soundly reject her candidacy.

I made Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior public and filed an ethics complaint against her because her conduct with a South Orange police officer on April 27, 2018 was not becoming of a public official. Despite efforts by some of her supporters to paint my complaint as a personal vendetta, the New Jersey School Ethics Commission not only ruled that my complaint was valid, it dismissed all of the efforts to distract from the serious issues at hand. The Commission ruled that Ms. Lawson-Muhammad did violate state ethics law when she attempted to use her position to evade being issued a traffic summons, implied that a public official would intervene on her behalf, cursed at a police officer, and used a racially charged term to describe the South Orange police chief. In its formal ruling, the Commission also took to task the Board of Education for not discussing Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior in a public meeting; something that I had called for months before the Commission hearing. 

The decision (Docket #C34-18) should be read by all voters before casting ballots. The School Ethics Commission is clear and unambiguous in its finding against Ms. Lawson-Muhammad. 

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What has been lost in all the misinformation surrounding Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s behavior is that she was in the wrong and attempted to cover up her misdeeds. It is clear that she never had any intention of revealing this incident and spent considerable effort to conceal it. In its decision the Commission noted, “Finally, based on the record, it appears that Respondent did not take steps to accept responsibility for her unethical conduct or to make amends to either the police officer or to Chief Kroll until after the incident became public.” Her behavior was of such concern that the Village Trustees of South Orange alerted the president of the Board of Education months before I filed my ethics complaint in Trenton. Moreover, at the School Ethics Commission hearing Ms. Lawson-Muhammad admitted that she never personally apologized to the officer, despite claims she made publicly that she had. 

Why is this important to our School Board elections? We have a sitting member of the School Board that has been found to be in violation of state ethics law who is seeking voter approval for another term, and by extension, approval of her behavior. What message does that send our children when a Board member who can cast judgment on student disciplinary matters is not held fully accountable for her own behavior? What would her election say about a community that repeatedly wallows in rhetoric about justice but looks the other way when a public servant has been harassed and insulted? What does it say about a community that claims to stand for progressive values, and expressed alarm over how Black children were treated by local police but will not defend a police officer of the character we claim we want serving our community? 

Ms. Lawson-Muhammad is not entitled to her position. It is a privilege she grossly offended. Some lessons just aren’t learned, they must be voted on. We can and must do better.

 

Walter Fields

Maplewood, NJ