DOVER — Last month’s stop of a bus carrying the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse squad in Georgia is headed toward federal scrutiny.
Speaking to the media in a Zoom conference Friday, DSU President Dr. Tony Allen said the university intends to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice next week. The school claims that Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies acted with misconduct when pulling the bus over on Interstate 95 for a minor violation on April 20.
Deputies conducted what Dr. Allen described as a “constitutionally dubious” stop and search of the bus heading home to Dover after a season-ending three-game road trip.
A player captured a video of an officer entering the bus, informing the occupants that marijuana is illegal in the state and asking them to turn over any that may have been aboard.
Law enforcement said a K-9 had given an alert sign outside the bus, and Sheriff William Bowman has defended the officers’ actions.
Ultimately, no contraband was located and the bus resumed its travel after what DSU coach Pamella Jenkins estimated was a 30- to 45-minute stop.
An attempt to reach Sheriff Bowman for comment Friday was unsuccessful.
The incident has again brought discussion on concerns of racial bias to the forefront.
“There are very few of my African American friends who haven’t had something like this happen to them, and/or had to have a talk with their children about how to prepare for this when it happens,” Dr. Allen said. “I’ve certainly had my own life and experience, but I am incensed that it would happen to a group of Division I athletes returning from an athletic match.”
As to DSU’s position on the stop, Dr. Allen said, “We believe both the stop and the search are a violation of rights — the rights of every passenger on the bus and those of the driver.”
The incident didn’t receive public attention until May 4 when sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson reported on it in the school’s online publication The Hornet Newspaper (thehornetonline.com). Coach Jenkins, however, immediately notified the school’s general counsel upon returning to campus, Dr. Allen said.
“Our first and most immediate concern was our students’ and coaches’ mental and physical well-being,” the president said.
“That remains paramount. We also immediately began an investigation into the incident.
“We have been determined to be precise and deliberate in understanding the facts of the incident. Our intention was to let the fact pattern lead us to the most pointed action we can take as a university.
“We have also wanted to provide our students with the best possible advice and counsel for action they can pursue as individual citizens.”
Regarding the timing of the process, Dr. Allen said, “Questions have been raised about the timing of our response. As president, responsibility for such decisions is always mine. To the extent people believe we should have moved faster, that burden lies with me alone.
“I chose to ensure that our findings were as unassailable as possible. In that vein, the essential facts of the case remain sound.”
Dr. Allen said he has spoken with Sheriff Bowman and described the conversation as “cordial.” Additionally, though “the impasse is apparent.”
Sheriff Bowman has offered to meet with team members, and Dr. Allen said that’s possible if the players agree to it.
According to Dr. Allen, “Sheriff Bowman insists that personal items were not searched; the video clearly shows officers searching toiletries, searching clothes and opening a family graduation gift.
“It also raises questions about the conduct of both the dog handler and the officer who remained on the bus asking questions of our students.
“Sheriff Bowman said the officers were unaware of the nature of the passengers on the bus; the video clearly demonstrates that the officers were aware that this was a busload of ‘school girls’ and that they were looking for drugs and drug paraphernalia.”
A Freedom of Information Act request for body camera footage from all involved officers and any paperwork filed on the incident had not been fulfilled by Thursday, which Dr. Allen said was the deadline for receipt. As of Friday, footage from only one officer’s body camera had been made public.
In the larger context, Dr. Allen said, “I think it’s really important that the lesson here is really about the fact that these things still exist, and they must be met with great dignity, grace and ferocity.
“I know my student-athletes did that both at the time of the stop and certainly since by the way they have handled themselves.
“I think this is a classic example of continuing in the fight for social justice.”
The university said it would support any options to respond to the incident that the bus driver, coaches and/or students may explore moving forward.
In summation of his remarks, Dr. Allen pointed to a six-week span in early 2022 when DSU and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities nationwide were subjected to a number of bomb threats.
“As our visibility has increased, so have the malignant intentions of the worst among us,” he said. “It is the reality too many Americans of color must live with, so much so that even being stopped for a minor traffic violation is cause for concern.
“I am always aware of the special trust parents have placed in us to safeguard their young adults.
“In this incident, everyone came home safely, but you have all reported on incidents that started innocuously and spiraled out of control. This happens, in part, because people feel frustrated by voicelessness — frustrated by safety that is predicated upon silence and frustrated by well-being predicated upon submission.
“We do not teach our students to be submissive. We teach them to be empowered and to use their voices for good — to be engaged in things greater than their own self-interests.
“That is why the best among our nation are behind them and why they shall not be moved.”