Walking hand-in-hand with her elementary school principal, wearing a red dress with black polka dots and a tiara and fighting off spits of rain, Khalia Smalley marched back onto her playground in the Park View neighborhood.
It was a brave act for the 6-year-old who hadn’t played on her favorite swings since she was shot there a month ago. On Saturday, grand marshal of a parade to reclaim her neighborhood from crime, the little girl stepped into the fenced-in lot near her home and went to where she was standing when a bullet pierced her left leg May 20.
“I felt nervous,” Khalia said about returning to the playground in the Park Morton public housing complex just off Georgia Avenue in Northwest.
People living around the playground in Park View came to their balconies, applauded and shouted her name. Marta Palacios, her principal at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, gently questioned her: “Where did it happen? Where did you run?” Khalia twice pointed and said, “Over there.”
The six-foot-high fence that surrounds the playground so it can be locked at night to keep undesirables out had, in fact, trapped the children when the gunman walked in and opened fire. He hit Khalia and a 25-year-old man — police believe the man was the target — who escaped over the fence. There is a gate at each end of the playground.
“It is like they were in a cage,” Palacios said. “Khalia was telling me how she got out, how she went to one place, then to another, while somebody was shooting. It had to be a nightmare.”
D.C. police have not made any arrests but have released surveillance video of persons of interest and a car. Khalia’s grandmother, Autumn Smalley, 53, said she is angry that no one has come forward to help the police. “I wish I had seen them, because I’d be right there on TV telling on them,” she said.
The parade started at the Bruce Monroe Community Park on Georgia Avenue and went 10 blocks to the elementary school, cutting through Park Morton and the playground. Dozens of students, parents and teachers joined in, shouting, “Stop the shooting,” as youngsters banged on drums. Khalia led the way, wearing a sash proclaiming her princess of the day.
The diversity of the school was evident in the national flags held by students to represent their countries of origin — Japan, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Greece, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Peru. Some of the students had escaped conflict zones.
Khalia, who turns 7 in July, did not say much, although she clearly relished being the center of attention. She showed off her wound and shook her head “no” when asked if she was all healed. She had been using a walker. Palacios described Khalia as an energetic child who bounds into the principal’s office to recite poems about the sky, birds and her mother.
It was a day to celebrate life, the principal said, but also to remind residents that the school and its children can and should be the community’s centerpiece and that violence has no place anywhere, much less on a playground.
The school’s social worker, Diana Mata, said that trying to help children so young understand the shooting was difficult. The first day Khalia returned, Mata had Khalia’s entire class stand around them and embrace. “We are one family,” Mata said.
As they talked that day, other youngsters had offered their own stories of dealing with violence — some of the accounts set in war-torn countries the children had left behind.
“We are almost desensitized to violence,” Mata said. “We live under arms, but each child kept saying, ‘This is what happened to me, and this is what happened to me.’ Khalia heard their stories, and it helped.” Khalia knows that she was not the person the gunman was aiming at, that she was a bystander in someone else’s dispute. But it happened on her turf, children’s turf, where adults tell her it’s safe to play.
When she walked through the playground with her principal, her classmates and parents, she kept her pace brisk and her answers short. She did not pause to jump on a swing or go down a slide.
Khalia hadn’t been back since the shooting, and asked when whether she’ll return to the playground again, she shook her head “no” and wandered off to play with a friend.