Bus hunting was ‘something no one should do’

Delaware State University’s south swing to close out its women’s lacrosse season was a bit of a homecoming for rookie Brianna Johanson.

The Naples, Florida resident relished the chance to play games in her home country. She had broken through the starting lineup at the end of the year and had scored one of five goals for the Hornets in their last three games of the trip.

She had traveled far from home to attend the state of Delaware, among the country’s historically black colleges and universities. She coveted the cultural opportunities that Johanson felt she missed from attending a private high school, the Naples Community School, and the chance to play a sport she loved.

“We’re still a growing program,” she said, “but we’ve made a lot of progress…I was very excited to be home for the games. We had a great time , even on the bus, a 12 hour ride back. We were kinda dreading it, but everything was fine until it happened and it was just, quite honestly, scary. And it was just something to none of us expected.

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What happened was at 10:30 a.m. on April 20, driving along Interstate 95 near Savannah, Georgia, the DSU bus was stopped by Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies. They told driver Tim Jones that he had traveled illegally in the far left lane, although Jones told them the signs only said trucks could not drive there.

As a deputy spoke with Jones, co-workers arrived with a narcotics-sniffing dog. He picked up a scent, and the next thing the DSU players knew was that their stuff was being searched.

Body camera footage shows Delaware State University women's lacrosse on a bus stopped by deputies in Liberty County, Georgia on April 20, 2022.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” Johanson said, “because we didn’t really know what was going to happen next or what they would try to say because we already knew they could come on the bus and tell us that we were wanted.”

Other team members said they were not surprised to have encountered such a situation in the South.

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DSU coach Pamella Jenkins said it was the first encounter most women on the team had with law enforcement. Johanson was one of those people, which added to his anxiety.

It didn’t help when a deputy started talking to the search team, saying “If there’s anything in your luggage, we’ll probably find it, okay?”, his tone was accuser.

“The infuriating thing was the presumption of guilt on their behalf,” Jenkins said.

Late last month, a bus carrying the Delaware State University women's lacrosse team was stopped in Georgia.  Liberty County deputies conducted a search of their belongings.  05/11/22

In Johanson’s opinion, and that of her teammates, she said, “He was asking us, but he really wasn’t. He was practically threatening us… We all knew we had nothing on us. We are Division I lacrosse players.”

Johanson did not see his luggage outside the bus and does not know if it was searched.

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Later, when deputies found a package wrapped in a gift bag, they brought it on board and summoned the player whose name was on it – senior captain Aniya Aiken. Even though it was a gift, the deputy acted surprised that Aiken didn’t know what was inside.

“You see it kinda sounds like ‘What’s going on?’ … That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking for,” he said.

Johanson said seeing how calm and respectful Aiken was, even asking the deputy if he’d like her to open the package right there, was uplifting.

“She’s known in our team for being a great leader,” Johanson said. “She’s very mature…So it didn’t really surprise me that she handled the situation the way she did and it certainly comforted us all.”

The incident was a stark reminder, Johanson said, of the experiences people of color encounter all too frequently, calling it “another thing we were going to have to come to terms with.”

She even noticed it on the lacrosse field, where most of the teams the DSU faces are overwhelmingly white and the Hornets tend to be treated as “the most aggressive team” by umpires, though the film of the match may show otherwise.

The bus incident was revealed last week in an article by Sydney Anderson, a second-year lacrosse player who was on the bus, in DSU’s student publication The Hornet Newspaper and its website thehornetonline.com.

Johanson said most players had posted comments and/or photos on social media at the time of the stop and search. She was surprised it didn’t catch the public’s eye earlier, but she’s glad it did now.

“Something has to happen about that because it was just something no one should go through, let alone a Division I sports team,” she said. “…Basically, we were raped.”

Have an idea for a gripping local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.

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