SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — At the May 21 South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting, member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad took time to address the incident that occurred when a South Orange police officer pulled her over for speeding. She apologized again for her behavior and reaffirmed her commitment to the school district and to serving the community.
Lawson-Muhammad has faced significant backlash from various community members after an altercation became public in which she argued with a South Orange police officer after being stopped April 27. According to video footage of the incident, which the News-Record obtained along with a police report after filing an Open Public Records Act request, Lawson-Muhammad complained about being issued a ticket by South Orange Police Officer Shaun Horst, called South Orange Police Chief Kyle Kroll a “skinhead cop,” told the officer she would call village President Sheena Collum about the stop and informed the officer that she was a board member, which caused some in the community to say she was trying to garner special treatment.
“I want to sincerely apologize that my uncharacteristic behavior displayed in the police video from April 27 has alarmed some of the residents in the district and the community that I love,” Lawson-Muhammad said at the May 21 meeting. “I made those statements out of the stress of the moment. I did not make those statements to attain a privilege. I ran for 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.”
In addition to receiving a lot of hateful comments and even some threats, Lawson-Muhammad said she has also received a fair amount of support.
“Many have reached out to offer support and encouragement during this time and for that I am truly thankful,” she said. “I want to reiterate how earnest I am about working with Chief Kroll, a commitment we made together coming out of a 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.”
She singled out the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race and Rev. Terry Richardson of First Baptist Church of South Orange for their support in helping the two towns work toward greater racial understanding and cohesion.
“I am blessed to live in a community with those who are committed to this work and willing to give of themselves in times like this. I stand committed more than ever to continue my role as a champion for equity, the voice of the voiceless, and a believer that we can do the hard work necessary to make this the district our children deserve,” she said. “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.”
While some community members — especially the leadership of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop — have been adamantly calling for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation, many others have voiced their support.
The executive committee of the CCR released a lengthy statement of support for Lawson-Muhammad in which it reaffirms its goal “to bridge racial barriers and to bring people together in candid dialogue” and discusses the “tragic” incidents seen across the nation between members of law enforcement and people of color. The statement praises Kroll for his openness to work with the CCR and his proactive behavior when it comes to combating bias; it also credits Lawson-Muhammad, who is the BOE’s liaison to the CCR, for her volunteerism and track record of working toward racial equality in the schools.
“In reviewing the video we must acknowledge that name-calling is wrong. In this circumstance, the language is particularly problematic given that, unlike many of the criticisms leveled against police for acts of violence and insensitivity toward persons of color, Chief Kroll has acknowledged that problems exist in interactions between the police and persons of color in the community and works toward creating change through policies, hiring practices and outreach to the community,” the statement reads. “At the same time, we are painfully aware that even routine stops by police of persons of color are filled with tension and fear and that is apparent in Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s response. As the community grapples with the issues, we ask that we engage in constructive dialogue that works toward solutions of improving the interactions of persons of colors with the police. The ongoing power dynamics in the United States between whites and blacks must be candidly addressed in order to address the current unacceptable state of affairs in all aspects of social interaction.
“When there are controversies like these, the coalition advises in-person communication and conversation. We are always willing to be at the table or to recommend external, professional mediation services,” the statement continues. “In this case, we were pleased to be of help in facilitating conversations and communications between the people involved along with support and input of Rev. Terry Richardson. We are aware that the parties involved are working toward reconciliation. Given their willingness to work together, we appeal to the public that comments on this incident show a concern for the safe and equitable treatment of people of color, doing what is best for all our children, and come from a communal interest in empathy.”
The few attendees who spoke about Lawson-Muhammad at the May 21 meeting during public speaks voiced support for her.
On behalf of SOMA Justice, Ronni Schwartz, of Maplewood, read a letter signed by 267 individuals urging the BOE not to accept Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation and to give her and the South Orange Police Department space to resolve any issues themselves.
“Lawson-Muhammad is a longtime resident of South Orange and an involved parent in our school district,” Schwartz read. “She has had an excellent record of service on our board since 2014. In that role she has been a voice of concern of students of color and a dedicated volunteer. We encourage you to view Lawson-Muhammad’s interaction during the traffic stop in the context of our country’s current climate of violence against people of color. As her child was in the car, the fear heard in her voice was understandable. Police officers repeatedly kill innocent black people, including women and children, without repercussion. Videos of those incidents are plastered across social media and news sites.
“Moreover, violence by police officers is not a distant theoretical concern,” she continued, discussing the July 5, 2016, altercation between Maplewood police officers and rowdy black youth. “In this context we view Lawson-Muhammad’s reference to her board service in her interaction with Officer Horst as an effort to show him that she is an upstanding member of our community, that she is one of us, in an effort to protect her and her child’s safety. She was scared and anxious. The officer did not need to do anything inappropriate in order for her fear to be valid.”
A founding member of Parents in Partnership for Respect and Equity in SOMA, Rosemary McLaughlin, of Maplewood, called out the “attacks” on Lawson-Muhammad, stating that she believes them to be politically motivated; she argued that Lawson-Muhammad’s detractors are asking for her resignation due to past disagreements and are merely using this incident as an opportunity to do so.
“If we as community members embrace the cynical ‘gotcha’ culture that has gripped the rest of the country, what message are we sending to other community members who may desire to serve in the public sphere? What behavior are we modeling for our children?” McLaughlin asked at the meeting. “We call on the SOMA community to reject these thinly veiled attempts to disrupt the important work of the Board of Education. We call on the Board of Education leadership to resist any efforts to discourage Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s presence on the Board of Education.”
Rhea Beck, of South Orange, echoed McLaughlin’s sentiments, asking the board to focus on all the work ahead to improve the school district rather than on this incident.
“Disappointingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, some members 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 a traumatic experience of an African-American woman as an opportunity to advance their own agendas,” Beck said at the meeting. “Yet these same voices remain silent about the fact that our district phone lines were so flooded with calls by alt-right activists around the country making vicious threats against one of their colleagues. This is not the work the community members elected you all to do.
“The small-mindedness evident in the last few days is heartbreaking. The blatant partisanship is, for lack of a better word, tacky. You demean your work, you demean the 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.”