Delaware State University students received an education about potential racial profiling and questionable law enforcement practices, with a charter bus traveling through Georgia as their classroom.
It’s certain to be a lesson they’ll long remember, but its occurrence has raised eyebrows well beyond the DSU campus in Dover.
Its women’s lacrosse team was traveling north on I-95 in Liberty County, Georgia, southwest of Savannah, on April 20. The Hornets were returning home after playing their final game of the season at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, on April 19.
Bus driver Tim Jones was initially told he was improperly traveling in the left lane when the bus was pulled over, according to DSU’s student publication The Hornet Newspaper and its website thehornetonline.com. The incident was first detailed there in a story that published Friday written by Sydney Anderson, a sophomore lacrosse player who was on the bus.
Video accompanying the story taken by DSU player Saniya Craft shows an officer saying, “If there is anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably gonna find it, OK? I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys’ chaperones are probably gonna be disappointed in you if we find any.”
By that time, Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies had begun removing players’ bags from the vehicle’s cargo bay to search after asking Jones to open it. Police had a drug-sniffing dog at the scene.
Deputies knew those on board were on a lacrosse team.
“If there is something in there that’s questionable,” the deputy speaking on the bus said, “please tell me now because if we find it, guess what? We’re not gonna be able to help you.”
The law enforcement personnel on and outside the bus were white in photos and video accompanying thehornetonline.com’s account. Most, but not all, of the players and coaches on the bus were Black.
DSU President Tony Allen informed the university community about the incident in a letter early Monday. In it, Allen said DSU has informed Delaware Gov. John Carney, the state Attorney General’s Office, Delaware’s congressional delegation and the Congressional Black Caucus about the incident.
“They, like me, are incensed,” Allen wrote. “We have also reached out to Georgia Law Enforcement and are exploring options for recourse – legal and otherwise – available to our student-athletes, our coaches, and the university.”
Delaware State coach Pamella Jenkins called the incident “very traumatizing” on Monday and credited team members for staying “composed.”
When team members saw their luggage being removed before a deputy had begun his explanation, they were stunned, Jenkins said.
“The infuriating thing was the assumption of guilt on their [deputies’] behalf,” Jenkins said. “That was what made me so upset because I trust my girls.”
“One of my student-athletes asked them ‘How did we go from a routine traffic stop to narcotics-sniffing dogs going through our belongings?’” Jenkins said. “The police officer said that on this stretch of highway there are a lot of buses that are smuggling people and narcotics and they have to be diligent.’”
Gov. Carney released a statement Monday calling the video “upsetting, concerning and disappointing.”
“Moments like these should be relegated to part of our country’s complicated history,” Carney said, “but they continue to occur with sad regularity in communities across our country. It’s especially hard when it impacts our own community.’’
When contacted Monday morning, the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office said it would have a statement by the end of the day but nothing was provided.
In bold type, Allen also wrote in his email to the DSU community: “We do not intend to let this or any other incident like it pass idly by. We are prepared to go wherever the evidence leads us. We have video. We have allies. Perhaps more significantly, we have the courage of our convictions.”
The Atlantic Sun Conference member Hornets had also played at Kennesaw State in Georgia on April 16 and Jacksonville University in Florida on April 18.
During the stop, the officer told those on the bus that “marijuana is still illegal in the state of Georgia.” He then mentioned “anything you can put marijuana in” to smoke it or devices used to weigh it “like a set of scales,” suggesting they are also unlawful without actually saying so.
The bus was stopped for 30 to 45 minutes, Jenkins said. At one point, a deputy stepped onto the bus holding a gift-wrapped box and summoned the person whose name was on it – senior Aniya Aiken, who happens to be from Decatur, Georgia.
Aiken was asked where she received the package, Jenkins said. It was from family members who’d seen the team play at Kennesaw State. Asked what was inside, Aiken said she was told by her aunt not to open the gift until she got back to campus.
“He said, ‘You accepted something and you don’t know what it is?’” Jenkins said, and the deputy was told again it was a gift to be opened later.
The deputy returned to the cargo bay with the gift, which was then opened.
“Maybe another 10 minutes after that they come on the bus and they say, ‘You’re free to leave, have a safe trip,” Jenkins said.
The driver was not issued a citation.
When Aiken retrieved her gift later, she found a jewelry box that was a graduation present.
“To be clear,” Allen wrote, “nothing illegal was discovered in this search, and all of our coaches and student-athletes comported themselves with dignity throughout a trying and humiliating process.”
In a joint statement, Delaware U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester termed the situation “deeply disturbing.”
“No one should be made to feel unsafe or humiliated by law enforcement or any entity who has sworn to protect and serve them,” the statement read. “That’s especially true for students who have sought out HBCUs like Delaware State University with a long history of empowering communities of color that have far too often faced discrimination and other barriers to opportunity.”
Delaware State’s commencement exercises are Saturday morning at Alumni Stadium. Among the speakers is former Atlanta ayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is expected to address the incident.
The episode took place during a year in which Delaware State and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities have repeatedly been the victims of bomb threats.
“It should not be lost on any of us,” Allen wrote, “how thin any day’s line is between customary and extraordinary, between humdrum and exceptional, between safe and victimized. That is true for us all but particularly so for communities of color and the institutions who serve them. The resultant feelings of disempowerment are always the aggressors’ object.”
Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.