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Mother on hunger strike says she will continue pressing Duquesne for answers in son’s death

  • Ariel Worthy/WESA
Dannielle Brown sits at Freedom Corner while the community gathered to play music for her in summer 2020.

 Ariel Worthy / WESA

Dannielle Brown sits at Freedom Corner while the community gathered to play music for her in summer 2020.

Ariel Worthy followed Dannielle Brown’s story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. WITF and StateImpact Pennsylvania are part of the project. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. During the summer, Worthy followed Dannielle Brown around in the Hill District to get the full story and understanding of why she is on a hunger strike. You can read, and listen to, those stories here

(Pittsburgh) — Dannielle Brown spent much of 2020 on a hunger strike to protest her son’s death at Duquesne University. And while the school has taken action in response, it seems likely the dispute will continue in the new year.

Brown says she is prepared for the months ahead. At the weather turned colder, she moved into an apartment in the Hill District instead of holding daily protests at Freedom Corner near Duquesne’s campus. And while she says she still doesn’t eat solid food, she has changed her diet to ensure she is getting the necessary nutrients.

“It’s my understanding that your body in the wintertime holds on more to your fat,” Brown said. “I’m noticing that my body is kind of hibernating. I’m not losing as much [weight] as I would lose in warmer weather.”

Her son, Marquis Jaylen Brown, died in 2018, after Duquesne said he jumped from the window of his dorm room in Brottier Hall, in front of campus police.

Dannielle Brown first came to Pittsburgh in early July, when she sat outside Freedom Corner with a rocking chair and photos and candles in honor of her son. Since then, she’s taken part in protests, vigils, “living funerals” and discussions with Duquesne officials.

From the outset, she’s demanded access to the school’s records on her son ’s death. She’s also called for campus police to have body cameras, and to receive de-escalation and mental health crisis training.

The school says it is meeting Brown’s demands. In September, Duquesne ordered body cameras, and the school says its public safety department is “finalizing the use policy for the cameras, installing the system hardware, and undergoing training so that the cameras” so that they can be used in the spring semester.

The school also said its officers have received de-escalation training.

“De-escalation training has long been part of [campus police] preparation generally,” Gabe Welsch, vice president of Marketing and Communications with Duquesne, said. “The office has developed and sought some online enhancements on the subject, as well as recent training on related topics like education on synthetic drugs, and will be taking the 40-hour training as soon as it can be resumed safely.”

The school also says it turned over the files Brown has requested to her attorney, Paul Jubas, in November. Brown says that because of a nondisclosure agreement with the school, she couldn’t say much about those documents. But she did say that “critical parts are missing.”

“My demand was access to full documents; I didn’t say partial,” she said. “I want to conduct my own independent investigation like they did … and that’s something the school should allow me to do.”

Brown said she was wary of the school’s other promises too. “We have not seen the body cameras,” Brown said. “People live off of what Duquesne says. I’m not motivated by what they say, I’m motivated by what is being tangibly produced.”

Brown says she will continue her hunger strike until her demands have been met. She has visibly lost weight, and says she hasn’t eaten solid food since July. But these days her diet includes sugary beverages from Starbucks, cold-press juices, grapefruit juice, apple cider and “every blue moon a strawberry-banana smoothie.”

“I still take a B-12 shot, I still take a liquid vitamin so that I don’t deteriorate,” she said.

Originally Brown only drank water, and fresh juice. But, she says, “There’s a difference between doing a hunger strike and being hungry to the point where you have nothing. That type of situation they will die quickly.”

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