SOUTH ORANGE — A New Jersey education panel has recommended a six-month suspension for a school board member caught on camera cursing at a police officer and calling the chief a "skinhead cop."

The school board member has responded by saying that the decision belittled trauma suffered by black people.

The School Ethics Commission announced its decision Tuesday. It found South Orange-Maplewood School Board Member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad leveraged her position and tried to use her relationship with another top official to get out of a traffic ticket.

Lawson-Muhammad was heard using profanity when being issued tickets by the South Orange officer in dashcam video of the April 27 traffic stop. Lawson-Muhammad, who is black, was heard telling the white police officer that she's "scared of cops because you guys hurt black people."

She issued a public apology a few weeks later, saying she allowed her emotions to overwhelm her as she was trying to get her kids to school. But the commission noted that she never personally apologized to the officer who pulled her over and she only apologized after the video was shared by the news media.

In a statement to The Village Green and other media, Lawson-Muhammad criticized the panel's decision, saying it "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."

According to the commissions's decision, Lawson-Muhammad testified that the officer's skull tattoo on his arm gave her anxiety. She also testified that she felt the officer was mocking her feelings when he asked her if she needed an ambulance.

"All I needed to do was be reassured that I was not going to be hurt. That he was not a cop that hurst black people," she testified.

The commission, however, ruled that the officer was accommodating, including allowing her daughter to get out of the car and finish walking to school during the stop, but she attempted to escalate the situation and interfere with his job.

The commission concluded that her use of the word "skinhead" reflects poorly on the school board and its members.

The commission also faulted the entire Board of Education for not addressing the matter with Lawson-Muhammad or the public in order to "emphasize" that her actions were "inappropriate" and not condoned by the district.

The ethics complaint was filed by Walter Fields, a social justice activist with a group of black parents in the Maplewood and South Orange school district. Shortly after Lawson-Muhammad's arrest, Fields criticized the school board member for her behavior and called for her resignation.

In a statement this week, Fields said he filed the complaint "with no personal animosity" toward her.

"In an era in which relations between law enforcement and the Black community is tense and fragile, and in a town that has experienced an incident of abusive policing, it is important that we speak truthfully when law enforcement officers conduct themselves in a professional manner and treat Black civilians with respect," Fields said.

"Race and the issue of racial profiling is not relevant in this matter. Ms. Lawson- Muhammad’s behavior was driven by her attempt to use her public position and standing to influence a police officer in the discharge of his duties."

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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