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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Frowns Turned Upside Down : Smiles are prevalent again at Broadway Elementary in Venice after a truce that ended a long, bloody gang war in the area. 'We survived, persevered and have learned from the experience,' the school's principal says.


Early on Monday mornings, before classes begin, the students at Broadway Elementary School in Oakwood line up in perfect formation on their playground for a weekly awards ceremony.

As festive parents, teachers, siblings and grandparents look on, the school principal--megaphone in hand--blares out the names of the previous week's highest-achieving students. Pupils, ranging from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, march forward to receive a special pencil and a pat on the back to the sound of spirited applause.

What a difference a year makes.

Only a few months ago, students and teachers often lay sprawled across the same schoolyard, ducking gunfire that crackled nearby. Games of hopscotch would be interrupted by police helicopters and sirens. And parents frequently swarmed the school to take their children home after neighborhood shootings.

The cause of last year's chaos was a deadly war between black and Latino gangs. In nine months of tit-for-tat shootings, 17 people died--in many cases innocents who became random targets--and 55 were wounded.

The violence traumatized Oakwood, a close-knit community of about 10,000 residents in Venice. And perhaps nowhere was its fallout so apparent as at the elementary school, long an island of calm in the one-square-mile community.

But then came a gang cease-fire, which was negotiated in June by gang members with the help of probation officers and that remains in effect today. Now, Oakwood residents once again frequent local recreation centers, stroll in the neighborhood and hold outdoor barbecues.

And at Broadway Elementary, students, teachers and administrators are enjoying an atmosphere of calm and security that many other schools take for granted.

"We're seeing more smiles, and (students) are not as anxious," said Jeannie Gutierrez, a psychologist at the school. "They're just happy, silly kids who are glad to have had a summer of peace--to go to the beach, the boardwalk and the parks."

"This year I can walk around by myself and play outside," said one 10-year-old student, who asked not to be identified. "Last year I felt closed in, like I was in a jail. It was always hot in my house. Now I can feel a breeze."

Such stability is also important for the Oakwood community at large. Broadway Elementary has stood as a sanctuary of trust, a place where children are not only educated but fed and given psychological help. It's a place where parents take English-language and citizenship classes, seek advice and meet with neighbors during a crisis.

In communities hit by violence, local schools often serve as a refuge--an important reason, experts say, that such schools must remain safe.

"Many of these (inner-city) environments are more lethal than most war zones in the world's headlines," said Jim Garbarino, author of "Children in Danger: Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence." "In these American war zones, there is a breakdown of a meaningful adult structure, and kids realize that their parents are not in control and cannot protect them."

Added Garbarino, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University: "School becomes a potential safe zone, physically and emotionally, and a critical place for a child's safety, security and advocacy."


For Broadway's principal, Ed Romotsky, providing safe schooling in a climate of violence became an obsession last year.

The veteran administrator began his job in September, 1993, after a six-year stint as an assistant vice principal at Weemes Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles. In South-Central, he gained plenty of experience in talking with irate parents, setting up large school events and dealing with physical attacks against teachers and other dangers--including investigating a bomb threat.

When Romotsky arrived at Broadway, he found a surreal atmosphere in which he was forced to search for solutions to a daunting mix of problems that at times seemed beyond his control.

Children were coming to school after witnessing shootings. Some of their relatives had been killed. Others spoke of bullets shattering windows at home, even lodging in their refrigerators. To be safe from gunfire, parents put babies to sleep in bathtubs and had children eat dinner while lying on the floor.

"My daughter had to cross the chalk (police) markings on the street after a shooting," said the mother of one Broadway Elementary student. "She was bewildered. She asked, 'What does this mean, are we all going to die?' To explain (it) to her was very difficult."

In one case, a gang shootout occurred on a street beside the school while Broadway Elementary was in session. In another instance, gunfire nearby caused students to stampede into the schoolyard bathrooms. And on a third occasion, a shell casing was found in the school's parking lot.

None of Broadway's students were shot or wounded, but Romotsky brought in a team of counselors to deal with the psychological effects of the violence on students.

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