Education commissioner denies SLM appeal, affirms her fears, reduces penalty to 30 days

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad’s appeal of an ethics complaint against her was denied Thursday, Oct. 31, though the original six-month suspension was lessened to 30 days by New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet. The complaint was filed in May 2018 by Black Parents Workshop Chairman Walter Fields after Lawson-Muhammad was pulled over for speeding in South Orange by South Orange police officer Shaun Horst. She is currently running for a third term on the BOE; her current term expires at the end of 2019.

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 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 BOE member, causing some in the community to say she was trying to garner special treatment. Lawson-Muhammad was very agitated throughout the encounter, telling the officer she was afraid of police because they “hurt black people.”

The New Jersey School Ethics Commission ruled in favor of Fields, who said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Oct. 31 that the complaint was filed by himself and not on behalf of the BPW. He argued in the complaint that Lawson-Muhammad had violated NJSA 18A:12-24.1(e) and NJSA 18A:12-24.1(f) during the traffic stop.

NJSA 18A:12-24.1(e) states that “No school official, or member of his immediate family, or business organization in which he has an interest, shall solicit or accept any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value based upon an understanding that the gift, favor, loan, contribution, service, promise, or other thing of value was given or offered for the purpose of influencing him, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of his official duties.”

NJSA 18A:12-24.1(f) states that “No school official shall use, or allow to be used, his public office or employment, or any information, not generally available to the members of the public, which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his office or employment, for the purpose of securing financial gain for himself, any member of his immediate family, or any business organization with which he is associated.”

Appeals of NJSEC decisions are decided by the commissioner. In this decision, Repollet said, “Naming her speech ‘offensive and inappropriate,’ the SEC ridicules appellant’s statement to Officer Horst that ‘you guys hurt black people.’ The SEC failed to consider the appellant’s words within a broader cultural context or to understand appellant’s desire to immediately dispel any concern Officer Horst may have entertained as to whether, as a black woman, she might pose a threat to him. Given the contemporaneous racially motivated events occurring around the country involving police officers, appellant’s fears — while not entirely rational — were justified.”

According to Repollet, though the facts of the case were not in dispute due to video evidence, he did not agree with all of the reasoning behind the NJSEC’s suspension. Repollet said that Lawson-Muhammad saying she was a board member and mentioning Collum “at the very least gave the appearance of impropriety, and it was not unreasonable for the SEC to find that it linked her Board membership to the traffic stop. … The video did ultimately become public and the impact that it has had on the Board and the community cannot be ignored.”

In the decision, Repollet said a six-month suspension is “unduly harsh,” but Lawson-Muhammad should face some form of penalty.

“The Commissioner agrees with the SEC that the proven conduct necessitates some form of penalty. The traffic-stop video reveals that appellant displayed questionable judgment in referencing her Board membership and her relationship with the South Orange Village president,” he said. “Further, the use of inappropriate language toward Officer 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.”

Fields said he was fine with the 30-day suspension.

“It wasn’t a question of length,” he said. “The commissioner saw it fit to uphold the decision. To me, that is the bottom line. All of our elected officials should be held accountable for their actions and set a good example for our children.”

According to NJDOE Director of Public Information Mike Yaple in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 1, Lawson-Muhammad could appeal the decision again. If she does, it would go to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.

“Then it would be the court that would issue a stay — i.e., a stay would state that the commissioner’s decision would not be in effect until the court issues its ruling,” Yaple said in an email on Nov. 1.

In a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 1, Lawson-Muhammad did not indicate that she plans to appeal the decision. She said she is waiting to hear from the BOE whether her suspension will begin immediately. BOE President Annemarie Maini did not respond to a request for comment by press time on Nov. 5.

In a statement emailed to the News-Record on Nov. 1, Lawson-Muhammad thanked Repollet for the decision.

“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,” she said. “He noted that it was ‘not unreasonable for’ me ‘to feel insulted when Officer Horst offered to call … an ambulance,’ as he writes, ‘in light of the circumstances.’ I am glad that the commissioner recognized that I was remorseful in my public apology and testimony at the hearing. I still feel so today.”

Lawson-Muhammad also thanked Repollet for recognizing that the incident did not occur at a BOE meeting or in a school setting.

“I also value his affirmation and validation of the fear many people feel in America today when confronted by police, especially black people,” she said. “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 toward equity we have begun in the district and to supporting the new superintendent as we implement the Integration and Innovation Plan.”