Robina Suwol was dropping her sons off at Sherman Oaks
Elementary School one sunny spring day when she saw a
man wearing a hazardous-materials suit spraying the
side of a building. Her sons, Brandon and Nicholas,
then 10 and 6, walked right into a fine mist of what
turned out to be pesticide. Nicholas, who suffers from
asthma, experienced a severe respiratory attack.
That was five years ago.
Since then, Suwol has founded a nationally recognized
program in the Los Angeles Unified School District
that alerts parents to the use of chemical sprays on
school campuses, allowing them to make alternate
arrangements to address their children's needs.
An estimated 6,000 parents have registered for
"We are nationally renowned for this program now.
Other districts are looking at us to change their
policy as well," said school board member Julie
Korenstein, who was an early champion of Suwol's
At a news conference Thursday at Columbus Elementary
School in Van Nuys, the National School Pesticide
Reform Coalition released a report highlighting the
LAUSD's policy as one of 27 exemplary programs around
the country. Korenstein and Suwol were honored by
Environment California, a member of the pesticide
"It's been an effort of love in terms of protecting
kids," said Suwol, who spends many of her weekends at
health fairs to spread the word about pesticides. "I
want to help other people so their kids don't get
A single mother who never thought of herself as an
environmental activist, Suwol has since become a
leader in a national movement to limit pesticide use
in schools. She helped found California Safe Schools,
a nonprofit public education group, and serves as its
executive director. Occasionally, she travels to speak
A year after the LAUSD adopted its pest management
policy, the California Legislature passed the Healthy
Schools Act of 2000 to raise awareness of the dangers
of pesticides and promote the least-toxic means of
killing weeds and bugs.
At the LAUSD, maintenance workers have been trained to
use pesticides only as a last resort when infestations
persist. The district has reduced the number of
pesticides it uses from 137 to 37. And pesticides are
no longer administered routinely, but are limited to
an average of one application per school per year.
Current practices represent a sea change from the way
things used to be done, said Ashley Posner, a Sherman
Oaks parent who serves as chairman of California Safe
Through a public records request, Posner had found out
that school maintenance workers were spraying
pesticides and herbicides at levels 10 times or higher
than the manufacturer's recommended dosage.
"They were buying in bulk and mixing concentrates.
Apparently, the people doing the mixing weren't
following the directions," he said.
More importantly, the district's pest management
policy gives parents the right to know about chemicals
used to kill bugs or weeds at their children's
schools. They can now sign up to be notified 72 hours
in advance of pest exterminations, so they can make
arrangements to address their children's health
To prevent infestations, schools now thoroughly clean
kitchens every six months, rather than every other
Suwol is launching a public education campaign to
spread the message of pest prevention to children.
With support from a local printer, the California
Wellness Foundation and other organizations, she has
printed color posters aimed at different age groups.
The posters urge students to clean up after they eat,
to keep food and drinks in sealed containers, and to
not leave food in their lockers.
Suwol and a crew of volunteers deliver the posters to
schools. She also is talking to United Teachers Los
Angeles to see whether pest management can be
incorporated into the science curriculum.
"She is just a great example of grass-roots activism
at work," said Kagan Owens, program director for
Beyond Pesticides, a national advocacy group.
For more information about the LAUSD's Integrated Pest
Management Policy or California Safe Schools, visit
April 18, 2003
By Helen Gao
Submitted by: Robina Suwol *
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