Today, I am announcing the University’s intention to file a formal complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. The basis of this complaint will be police misconduct related to the April 20 incident in which Liberty County Sheriff’s Department officers conducted a constitutionally dubious “stop and search” of a charter bus transporting the University’s women’s lacrosse team.
That complaint, as a public document, will be made available to all of you when it is filed. I do not intend to debate the merits of our complaint in the public square. From our standpoint, the evidence is clear and compelling.
Our women’s lacrosse team is one of only five Division One lacrosse teams fielded by a Historically Black College or University in America. They are exceptional student-athletes and exceptional people coached by a standard-bearer for the sport, Coach Pam Jenkins, and her excellent staff.
On April 20, they were stopped for a minor traffic violation that turned into a search for illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. 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.
When the team returned to campus, Coach Jenkins reported this incident to our athletic director, and she immediately reported it to the University general counsel, as our process requires. Our first and most immediate concern was our students’ and coaches’ mental and physical well-being. 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. We have also wanted to target our inquiries to the offending law enforcement agency in question. As a point of fact, in Georgia, there are 159 elected sheriff’s offices and 628 law enforcement agencies overall. Establishing that the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office was the responsible party was essential to our review.
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.
As you know, I have spoken personally with Sheriff Bowman. Our conversation was cordial, but the impasse is apparent. We believe the stop and search raises serious constitutional and civil rights issues. He disagrees.
It is worth noting here that he ordered the release of body camera footage from one of the four officers involved in the incident, which he believes exonerates his department.
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.
To be clear, the University made a Freedom of Information Act request—consistent with Georgia law—for the body camera footage of all officers involved in the incident and paperwork generated by the stop. The deadline for that request expired yesterday. At present, we have not received a response from Sheriff Bowman’s office.
As some of you may know, Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings formally requested that the incident be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights. The Attorney General’s request and our complaint are first steps, but the bus driver, our coaches, and the students have their own options, and they are certainly exploring their own paths forward.
We wholly support them.
As a final word, 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.
The team’s experience was chronicled in an article for the school year’s final edition of the Hornet Online, our student newspaper, which was published on May 4. It is a carefully crafted and thoughtful piece, supported by video footage and photos taken by the student-athletes and very consistent with the material facts of our own review.
We did not coordinate with the student newspaper nor did we know that the story was going to be published. Still, I am pleased with the attention it has received and how the students and Coach Jenkins have since presented their experiences thoughtfully and truthfully in media outlets around the country on the topic.
Let me offer one final perspective here. In the first six weeks of this year, HBCUs around the country, including Delaware State University, were subjected to a round of bomb threats. As our visibility has increased, so have the malignant intentions of the worst among us. 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.