By Kendra Williby, Community Rights Organizer
Kendra is a community organizer at the Community Rights Project of the Community Labor/Strategy Center in Los Angeles, and is a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign-Los Angeles (DSC-LA) chapter. Learn more about the work of DSC-LA at www.dignityinschools.org.
In the spring of 2008, Mrs. Rochelle Pitman, made one the most difficult yet strikingly necessary decisions in her adult life. As a mother of three boys and one daughter, she decided to quit her job so she could attend to her son Jeremy’s educational needs. While she understood the economic impact that this would have on her immediate and extended family that she helped support, she refused, as she said, “to lose her son to the streets.”
Rochelle had put in countless hours working with Jeremy’s teachers, counselors and administrators at John F. Kennedy High School (Granada Hills, CA) to make certain that her son was achieving high and receiving the education necessary to build a path towards a bright future. Time and time again, she was told, “Jeremy is doing fine. You have nothing to worry about.” But when Jeremy came home with failing grades she became angry and distrustful of the school’s intentions for her son. “Why would they not inform me of his failing grades and problems in school?!”
Then came calls from the school about Jeremy “doodling” on his folders and other school property. She was disappointed in Jeremy’s conduct, and made certain Jeremy took responsibility with teachers and administrators – yet also understood that this behavior was typical of adolescence. Rochelle would later learn that without notifying her, the school used his drawings/doodling to profile him as suspected “gang member.”
The breaking point for Mrs. Pittman was learning from Jeremy’s principal that he had not been receiving his Individual Education Plan (IEP) for his special educational needs for an entire year. When Jeremy failed the 10th grade and began to lose motivation for school, Rochelle decided to pull him out of Kennedy and transferred him to Verdugo Hills High School.
School as Factories of Punishment
Reflecting back, Rochelle feels that perhaps Verdugo Hills was not the best move for her son – but at the time she felt she had no other option. When the school police called Rochelle to inform her that they found Jeremy outside of class after 1:30pm, she explained that he left school at that time but appreciated that her son was “safe” with the police keeping an “eye” on him. But in fact the officers she assumed were “protecting” her son were giving him one “truancy ticket” after another for absences and tardiness. They would ultimately be responsible for changing the course of his life forever.
Everything came to a head for Rochelle in May of 2010, when her son and three other young Black men were arrested after witnessing and recording a school police officer mace and hit another Verdugo Hills student with her baton. Although the officer’s story changed several times, Jeremy was ultimately charged with three felonies: 1) attempted lynching of an officer; 2) obstructing justice; and 3) threatening an officer with violence.
An Extraordinary Mother of An Extraordinary Son
I first met Rochelle almost four months ago when she came to our office to discuss organizing support for Jeremy’s legal case. With a smile on her face and the kind of warmth and strength in her voice that put everyone at ease, Rochelle talked about Jeremy. Her son was small in stature, generous, impressionable (like most young people) – at moments shy and awkward and at other times surprisingly funny. Rochelle went on to say, “I knew he was always a special child even before he could speak and communicate with other people. He found beauty, appreciation and joy in the most unnoticed things and would just smile with delight and spread all his love and happiness to everyone around.”
Rochelle was correct; Jeremy Marks is definitely an extraordinary person. Those who know him most intimately refer to him as an “old soul” in a young body. Jeremy has a special way of providing comfort, security and a sense of hope for people in despair. He has played this role especially for his mother, but not just her. Reflecting back on a young man in a wheelchair who lived in a foster home across the street, Rochelle fondly recalled, “Jeremy wouldn’t let me leave school until we found him and gave him a ride home. He was determined to make sure that the young man made it home safely every day. Sometimes he would have me driving around the school’s parameters several times until we found him.”
The Battle is Not Over
Because Jeremy’s record identified him (on spurious evidence) as a gang member, his bail was set so high that he spent 7 months in jail just awaiting trial. In that time, Jeremy’s smile began to fade. He lost weight and began to look sickly to his mother. Yet even in Jeremy’s moments of greatest despair, he held on to both hope and compassion. During one phone call with his mother, he handed the phone to another young prisoner who “needed her love and support at that moment even more” than Jeremy. Mrs. Pittman spent a moment talking and praying with the other young man, and played for him their favorite song, “The Battle is Not Over.” Afterwards, Jeremy excitedly exclaimed that his mom had raised the young man’s spirits and shifted his attitude.
Jeremy’s resiliency and faith is a testament to his mother’s love. Despite the pressure from his initial public defender, threats and intimidation by the prosecutor and school police, and most recently a raid of Jeremy’s home, Jeremy and Rochelle refused to have him to plead guilty to something that he did not commit.
When I asked Rochelle what keeps her going, she said, “after I left the police station on May 10th, the day of my son’s arrest, and they would not allow me to speak to him, I took it upon myself to find out the truth. I went to the bus stop (where the incident had happened) the next day. I asked the students what they had witnessed. All their accounts contradicted what the police had said.” When she sat down to pray that very same day, God revealed to her, the “Battle is won and all I have to do is be the foot solider.” From that moment, Rochelle launched her very own campaign for her son. She interviewed everyone on the scene that day, knocked on doors, and reached out to every civil rights organization or law office she could find.
As a result of Ms. Rochelle’s faith and determination, today Jeremy Marks is out on bail (he was released on December 23rd, 2010 after a donation from Google Engineer Neil Fraser. The Marks’ have two new private attorneys preparing for his trial, which will begin February 24th) and a dozen civil and social justice organizations are involved in fighting to get all the charges dropped.
You can help Rochelle Pittman and Jeremy Marks by making a donation to his legal defense fund. Checks can be made out to “Jeremy Marks Legal Defense Fund” (c/o First Bank 1375 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, CA 92832).
The Foot Solider
Ensuring that Jeremy is cleared of all charges is just the beginning of Rochelle’s work. Through her fight, she has gained the determination to change the system and make certain that no other child, mother or family has to face this nightmare. She passionately believes, that no one should have to see his or her child walk into the court room in chains and cuffs and have his or her life determined forever by a group of strangers. It is one of the most dehumanizing and heartbreaking experiences you can have.
Building a Civil and Human Rights Movement to End the Mass Incarceration of Black and Latino Communities
The Community Rights Campaign is fighting to end the “pre-prisoning” of Black and Latino youth in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) by decriminalizing school discipline and restricting the role and power of the Los Angeles School Police Department in our school campuses. Our platform for transforming our schools from “factories of punishment” to inclusive, nurturing, safe and enriching spaces of growth and learning that protect and honor the civil and human rights of all students aims to:
- End Tardy and Truancy Tickets
- Decriminalize School Discipline
- Restrict use of Force by School Police
- Create an Equal Protections Office
- End the Collaboration with the CALGANG Database
- Create a Student & Parent School Police Review Board
To learn more about our school police reform or the decriminalization of school discipline visit us at communityrightscampaign.org