Isaac got used to ditching. He and other Outsiders brought food for the school's security guards from their off-campus forays.

Junior year, their group got bigger. Mark Cevallos, an old friend from middle school but a newcomer to Birmingham, became the 12th Outsider in the Class of 2005.

Mark and David came up with the idea of throwing an Outsiders Halloween party. Isaac served as a bouncer. David created fliers.

The party was a huge success. More followed. On campus, the group's popularity soared. The boys wore their official symbol — the letter O with a bolt of lightning through it — on their backpacks. One member had it tattooed on his arm. They created an Outsiders website.

Then, the big rumble happened.

On a cool morning toward the end of fall 2003, Mark, nicknamed "Bad Guy," noticed a backpack in the locker room during second-period P.E. class. He rummaged through it.

Seven African American students, including the owner of the backpack, accused him of theft, challenging him to a fight. A faculty member intervened.

After school that day, across the street from Birmingham, teachers weren't around to step in.

Fights erupted between a couple of the African American and white students who had also been feuding that day. The white students had attended the Outsiders' first Halloween party, so there was a loose bond. The Outsiders jumped in on their side.

Three African American students punched an Outsider.

Andy used to play basketball with some of the black students. They had been friends. But now they had crossed an Outsider, so Andy had to get involved.

So did Isaac, who took on three guys. Soon about 50 kids were fighting.

David also threw punches. In his honors classes, he was reserved and thoughtful. Outside of class, he was among the quickest to fight. He carried a baseball bat as a weapon and boasted that he owned guns. He had a faint scar on his forehead from one of his many scraps.

After about 15 minutes, cops arrived and helicopters hovered. Everyone ran.

Polo had missed everything: He was at football practice.

In school, confrontations became a daily distraction. Mark cut class more frequently because he knew that rival students lurked outside.

Once, when David took a bathroom break from one of his Advanced Placement classes, four students cornered him in a boys' bathroom. He was in a stall when he heard them enter. David came out swinging and held them off.

With three years of failures already stacked against them, this new source of stress became the tipping point for some of the boys. It was one more reason not to focus, one more excuse not to go to school.

"That's what school was all about back then," said Andy. "Just going and having beef. That's why we couldn't focus on work. All we thought about was what's going to happen at lunch."

Even David, still enrolled in honors courses, got mostly Ds that semester. His favorite counselor had left. The new counselor rarely had time to talk to him.