Parent Wins School Pesticide Battle

A new law that bans that use of experimental pesticides in schools is the latest achievement of Robina Suwol, a Jewish anti-pesticide activist.

The law, which took effect last month, grew out of a presentation two years ago before an L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) advisory committee of which Suwol was a part.

As Suwol recalled it, a researcher asked to use LAUSD school sites to test an experimental pesticide.

“The woman said, ‘We use less [pesticides] and they’re stronger [so] therefore they’re safer,'” Suwol said. “We all kind of laughed and politely declined.”

But in the back and forth, the researcher mentioned that a school site had already been secured in Ventura County for the experimental product.

“That haunted me, and I began to research it,” she said.

What Suwol said she found was an arena of murky practices and documentation. It wasn’t clear that experimental pesticides were being used at any schools, she said, but it also wasn’t clear that they weren’t or that they never had been — or that they wouldn’t be tried at school sites in the future. So she decided to do something about it.

Suwol soon met with various environmental and public health organizations to marshal opposition to experimental pesticides in schools: “Everyone was on board that this was a curious loophole.”

Assembly member Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) agreed to author the legislation, which became Assembly Bill 405. Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) backed it, as did organizations including the California Medical Association, the state PTA, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and many others.

An early critic of the effort was the state’s own Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which has responsibility over these matters. At the time, officials there characterized the proposed restrictions as potentially redundant, confusing and over-reaching.

While permission to test can, in fact, be granted to experimental pesticides whose safety has not been determined, these permits “are time-limited, relatively few, and are closely controlled under very specific and restrictive conditions,” said Glenn Brank, director of communications for the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

He added that the department “has never allowed an experimental pesticide project at an active school facility, and we never would.”

Suwol said she had trouble obtaining data from the department about experimental test sites. Brank insisted, however, that such data is publicly available on request.

As it happens, even the researcher whose comment prompted Suwol’s quest contends there was a misunderstanding. This different version of events was reported by a pesticide industry news e-journal on called Insider, which identified the researcher in question as UC Berkeley entomologist Gail Getty.

Getty told Insider that she did indeed give L.A. Unified a presentation on an anti-termite poison that she was researching called Noviflumuron. But as for the Ventura County school test site, Getty told Insider that it was an abandoned school building fenced off from the public due to extreme termite damage — though she acknowledged that she did not mention this fact during her Los Angeles presentation. She added that her aim was simply to make LAUSD aware that a potentially helpful product was in the works. In the end, Getty told Insider, her test in Ventura never happened anyway. Noviflumuron received EPA approval in 2004.

Whatever the case, as far as Suwol and the legislation’s backers are concerned, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Lawmakers passed AB405 in 2005 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law. The Department of Pesticide Regulation says it fully supports the new regulations in their present form. The bill was eventually amended to avoid the problem of creating potential legal hurdles if a school used a widely accepted product, such as bleach, in ways not specifically mentioned in regulations.

Suwol’s interest in the subject of pesticides dates to 1998, when a worker accidentally sprayed her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, with a weed killer as he walked up the steps of Sherman Oaks Elementary.

“I saw someone in white near the steps,” said Suwol, then “Nicholas yelled back at me, ‘Mommy, it tastes terrible!'”

Nicholas suffered a severe asthma attack afterward. Suwol started meeting with doctors and scientists, and she began raising concerns with L.A. Unified officials. At first she was treated like one more crazy mom, but she persisted, eventually getting the attention of the school board, where she got backing from board members Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky.

In some cases, she made officials consider the obvious: Why should pesticides be sprayed when children are present?

Today, Suwol heads California Safe Schools, an L.A.-based nonprofit that advocates lower-risk pest control in schools, including barriers and natural predators, and keeping parents and school staff informed when poisons must be used. Its advisory board includes directors of various environmental organizations, including Dr. Joseph K. Lyou of the California Environmental Rights Alliance and William E. Currie of the International Pest Management Institute.

At L.A. Unified, her efforts bore fruit in the 1999 creation of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, which recommends a more holistic approach to eliminating pests and weeds than simply dousing them with poisons. It was before the district’s IPM oversight committee, on which Suwol sits, that she first heard from the pesticide researcher and became convinced there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

The governor’s office and others, Suwol said, “recognized that this was a situation that, even if it happened in just a few instances, should be stopped.”


Looking for a Shining Star


As every political and charitable organization knows, there is nothing like access to Hollywood stars and influential players to collect crowds and hefty donations.

So when American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supporters arrive in Los Angeles Sunday for a national meeting to listen to policymakers and pundits, their agenda also includes a visit to the Warner Bros. Studios and a chat with television producers and writers.

But AIPAC officials want more than a good time out of Hollywood. They want broader support, lots of money, and, if needed on occasion, celebrity cachet.

In other words, AIPAC is like every other Jewish organization worth its man of the year plaque. The strange thing is that AIPAC has to work so hard to make Hollywood inroads, given that AIPAC’s clout in official Washington is legendary.

AIPAC officials insist they are making progress.

“We are seeing significant number of people in the Hollywood community involved in AIPAC,” said its national spokesman Josh Block. As evidence, he cites increasing attendance by entertainment industry people at Los Angeles and national AIPAC events.

Block’s appraisal was endorsed by some enthusiastic AIPAC members in Hollywood, but the organization doesn’t provide membership lists or totals so the anecdotes cannot be verified.

The most optimistic estimate put Hollywood membership in “the hundreds,” but even that figure was questioned by some outside observers.

One of the best-connected political analysts of Jewish Hollywood, who, like most respondents, did not wish to be identified by name, pointed to a basic problem.

“It is always a real challenge getting Hollywood people involved in organized Jewish life or Israeli causes, except through synagogue membership,” the observer said. This fact-of-L.A.-life applies to AIPAC as well as to other Jewish groups.

One difficulty is the “idiosyncratic” nature of the entertainment industry, which is not easily understood or penetrated by outsiders seeking the help of show-business Jews, the observer said. This analyst added that many creative people come to Hollywood to get away from the “stale traditions” of New York and other East Coast cities.

As a final point, the observer noted, Hollywood Jews tend to fall on the liberal side. Thus, the few who are Jewishly involved are more likely to support Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum or American Jewish Committee, while AIPAC is perceived as “conservative.”

The latter perception is strenuously contested by AIPAC officials and supporters.

“We cut across all lines and partisanships in terms of U.S. politics. That’s why we are successful,” said Joel Mandel, a Hollywood business manager and AIPAC member.

Practically speaking, AIPAC traditionally either supports the current Israeli government or sits on the sidelines steadfastly supporting Israel even as that nation’s factions battle over control, policies and ideas.

Mandel acknowledged that AIPAC could do a better job at communicating with the entertainment industry, but also cited recent improvements.

“We are talking to politically sophisticated people,” he said. “If we provide with them facts, they’ll get it.”

A similar positive assessment was given by Joan Hyler, former senior vice president at the William Morris Agency and enthusiastic AIPAC advocate.

“We’re small, but we’re growing,” she said, “and the field is wide open.”

What AIPAC lacks in Hollywood is a high-profile celebrity to draw attention and colleagues with open wallets. In the past, Peace Now has benefited from the active presence of actor Richard Dreyfuss, while the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee are generally able to “honor” some bright star at their annual events.

However, AIPAC can now point to influential multimedia mogul Haim Saban, who is backing the organization’s Saban National Political Leadership Training Seminar. The semiannual seminars in Washington each draw some 300 college student activists for three days of intensive pro-Israel advocacy training. Saban is no Streisand, nor even Madonna, but he’s got the resources to back up his politics.

As for the future, a Hollywood executive who requested anonymity, sounded a hopeful note.

“I think AIPAC is making progress, especially among the younger people in the industry,” he said. “We’ll see a lot of growth over the next couple of generations.”

All About AIPAC

AIPAC Is Guilty — But Not of Spying

How to Polish a Tarnished Image

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad AIPAC?

Summit Tackles Iran Nukes, College Strife

A One-ManRevolution

When Soviet film schools banned Vladimir Alenikov due to anti-Semitism, he risked arrest to make his own movies in 1973. The director cold-called Soviet stars, who quickly signed on to his innovative projects. He bought leftover film stock, scavenged equipment, faked documents and bribed guards to use editing rooms after hours.

His resulting movies, although illegal, eventually launched his career as a preeminent Russian writer-director.

The 55-year-old artist, who now lives in Woodland Hills, will return to Russia June 19-28 to lead a UCLA Extension study tour of the industry that once excluded him. (The reservation deadline is March 22.) Participants will attend the Moscow and St. Petersburg film festivals; they’ll also learn about the recent renaissance of Russian cinema, suggested by movies such as Andrej Zvjagintsev’s "The Return," which languished in the chaotic decade following the collapse of communism.

One stop on the tour will be Gorky Studios, where executives invited Alenikov for a meeting back in 1975. They wanted to adapt the popular children’s stories he had written to help finance his illegal films; after viewing the movies, they also agreed to let him direct, launching his official career. Although Alenikov soon became a household name, it was only after perestroika began that he was allowed to make his 1990 Jewish musical, "The Drayman and the King," based on the work of Isaac Babel.

When the film earned good reviews in the United States, Alenikov moved to Los Angeles, where, he said, he quickly learned he was "nobody." To survive, he drove taxis and sold belongings to pawn shops, which ultimately inspired his 2003 drama, "The Gun."

"To jumpstart my career, I knew I had to direct something that was inexpensive and original," he said of the thriller, which follows a gun as it passes among desperate people in the Valley. Filmed in real time (90 minutes), the movie consists of just 15 scenes shot without cuts; it’s earned kudos on the North American festival circuit and will screen at the Moscow and St. Petersburg festivals this summer.

Although "The Gun" is an American movie, Alenikov — still a high-profile director back home — feels it links him to new Russian cinema.

"Directors are no longer trying to emulate Hollywood," he said. "They’re returning to the Russian tradition, which is about examining the soul."

For tour reservations, call (310) 825-9064.

An Army of One

All things pass in Hollywood, but for Army Archerd. For 50years, while great stars faded and powerful studio chiefs sank into obscurity,Archerd has written his daily column for Variety, the entertainment industry’smust-read, and he can count the times he’s missed a deadline on the fingers ofone hand.

“Army is a legend in Hollywood and his column is read likethe Bible,” said Rabbi David Baron, Archerd’s spiritual leader at Temple Shalomfor the Arts.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the American Friends of the Hebrew Universitywill recognize Archerd’s “dedication, generosity and deep commitment to hiscommunity” by presenting him with the Scopus Award.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,lauds Archerd’s “love for the Jewish people, and especially Israel.”

“Anytime something terrible happens to Jews around theworld, we talk about it. The Holocaust has had a tremendous impact on him andhe has never forgotten his Jewish roots.”

Born 81 years ago in the Bronx as Armand Archerd — “Army” isa boyhood nickname that hung on — he sits quietly for an interview in thekitchen of his art-filled Westwood home, facing the UCLA campus — but the daily4:30 p.m. deadline is never far from his mind.

He excuses himself for a phone chat with actors MichaelDouglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of 40-50 such calls that providethe material for his next day’s Just for Variety column.

Archerd can justifiably claim that he writes for thebrightest, most talented and creative, and wealthiest readership of anycolumnist.

Starting with legendary moguls Louis B. Mayer, SamuelGoldwyn, Harry Cohn and the Warner brothers, he has interviewed just abouteveryone who matters in Hollywood and his only regret is that he never got totalk to the reclusive Greta Garbo.

Archerd culls the names of show biz’s great and near-greatfrom an unmatched contact list, stashed in three drawers of his desk, thatwould make any other reporter, or agent, “plotz” with envy, he said.

But after a newspaper career that began in 1945, andincluded early stints with the Associated Press and the L.A. Herald-Express,filling the 83 lines of his column each day is still hard work.

“It’s a daily challenge that hasn’t gotten easier withtime,” he said. “I keep a pad on my nightstand and when I wake up during thenight, I jot down some little shtiklech or who I should call tomorrow.”

Archerd grew up in what he calls a “very Jewish home,” witha French-born mother and Romanian-born father, and he has on hand the tallitand tefillin from his bar mitzvah.

Always a precocious student, he graduated from high schoolat age 15, besides having a slew of extracurricular activities and an eveningushering job at the Criterion Theatre on Broadway.

His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 17 and in 1941,at age 19, he graduated from UCLA. At a party hosted by his Jewish fraternity,Zeta Beta Tau, Army met Selma, an attractive Fairfax High student. Both went onto marry other partners but reunited 33 years ago.

Selma Archerd, an actress, describes her marriage as”blissful” and her husband as “an ethical, wonderful person, clean in soul anddeed.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Archerd enlisted in the Navyand, commissioned an ensign, served in the Pacific as deck officer on adestroyer.

As he goes about his work, Archerd says, “I have an antennafor any indications of prejudice in the industry, including, but not only,anti-Semitism.”

He has taken on such icons as Michael Jackson, when thelyrics of one of his songs insulted Jews, and Marlon Brando, when he tossed offan anti-Semitic quip during an interview. Both the singer and the actor apologizedfor their trespasses.

Lately, it seems to some of his readers, Archerd hasratcheted up his denunciations of terrorist attacks in Israel and his praisefor supporters of the Jewish state.

For instance, in a column last August, he expressed deep shockat the suicide bombing at the Hebrew University’s Frank Sinatra Student Centercafeteria.

In typical fashion, he called on his memory and past columnsto resurrect Sinatra’s original 1978 visit for the dedication of the center inJerusalem, the members of his party and the fact that the crooner cooked up anItalian dinner in the butler’s pantry of the presidential suite of the localHilton Hotel.

Archerd’s activities include founding the Hollywood PressClub, launching TV’s “Entertainment Tonight” and regular host stints for theRetinitis Pigmentosa International award dinner. He has appeared as himself inover 100 movies and TV shows.

Archerd has no thought of retiring. “You see,” he saysbefore hurrying off to his office, “I’m not such an A.K. [alter-kacker] afterall.”

The Scopus Award dinner honoring Army Archerd will be heldTuesday, Jan. 28, at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. For information, phone(310) 843-3100.