Delaware State University will file formal civil rights complaint with DOJ over bus search

Delaware State University, a historically Black college, has announced it will file a formal complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, nearly a month after Georgia officials pulled a bus carrying the university’s women’s lacrosse team over for a traffic violation and searched it for drugs. The school said the search left the student athletes “humiliated” and accused officials of misconduct.

Tony Allen, the university’s president, said in a statement Friday that the university conducted its own investigation into the incident and found that “the stop and search raises serious constitutional and civil rights issues.”

“From our standpoint, the evidence is clear and compelling,” Allen said. 

Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is Black, said his office is conducting a formal review of the traffic stop. He said deputies had stopped other commercial vehicles the same morning along I-95 and found drugs on a different bus. The team’s chartered bus was stopped because it was traveling in the left lane, which is illegal in Georgia.

The sheriff said deputies decided to search the team’s bus when a drug-sniffing dog “alerted” alongside it.

“I do not exercise racial profiling, allow racial profiling or encourage racial profiling,” Bowman told reporters. The sheriff added that based on what he already knows about the stop he believes it was legal.

Georgia courts have held that the odor of marijuana is enough to give authorities probable cause to search vehicles without a warrant. The sheriff said he welcomed feedback from the lacrosse team.

No one was arrested or charged after the search. The sheriff said the bus driver was given a warning.

Video posted online by a Delaware State lacrosse player shows two White deputies on the bus. One of them tells the bus passengers that possessing marijuana is illegal in Georgia.

“If there is anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably going to find it, OK,” the deputy says. “I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys’ chaperones are probably going to be disappointed in you if we find any.”

The deputy continues: “You guys are on a lacrosse team, correct? If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now. Because if we find it, guess what? We’re not going to be able to help you.”

Videos taken during the incident also appear to show authorities looking through the student athletes’ bags and other personal belongings.

Sydney Anderson, the student who posted the video, wrote in the campus publication The Hornet Newspaper that team members felt there was “underlying racism” behind the search.

“The team members were in shock, as they witnessed the officers rambling through their bags,” Anderson wrote. “They brought the K-9 dog out to sniff their luggage. The cops began tossing underwear and other feminine products, in an attempt to locate narcotics.”

On Friday, Allen also praised Anderson’s bravery in reporting on the incident. “I cannot say enough about the dignity, grace, and resolve of our student-athletes as well as that of our student-athlete-journalist Sydney Anderson.”

He said that the university’s “most immediate concern” is the wellbeing of those who were onboard the bus at the time of the stop.

“We realize that in this current environment, even a traffic stop can be alarming to citizens, especially African Americans,” Allen said.

The university’s president added Friday that while the recent bomb threats on HBCU campuses provide a perspective for the administration’s concern, the school is determined to take action. 

“We do not teach our students to be submissive,” Allen said. “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.”

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