Leticia Avila wasn't concerned about the consequences when she was packing a .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol at Roosevelt High School. All she wanted was revenge.
At the time, Leticia, then 16, said she was being taunted daily by several students. So she decided to scare off her tormentors with a gun she borrowed from her brother.
"I wanted them in the worst way," she said. "They tried to pick a fight, they talked about my mother. I told them, 'Don't disrespect my family.' But they didn't listen. Finally, I decided to take one or all of them out."
But she never got the chance to confront them. Word spread that she was carrying a weapon. Summoned to the principal's office, she was searched and then arrested after police found the gun and a small quantity of marijuana in her knapsack.
That was two years ago, but Leticia is still haunted by the memory of her arrest.
"I really felt embarrassed and sad," she recalled. "It took all I had to hold my feelings in. But when I got to the police station and they took my fingerprints and everything, I broke down and started to cry. I kept thinking, 'How could I do this to my family, my mom and dad? They're going to throw me out.' "
The 10th-grader spent several months in juvenile hall, where she gained a reputation as a troublemaker. Because she was caught before the Board of Education stiffened its gun policy, she was given a second chance--and then a third. But each time, she was thrown out of school for fighting. She then landed at Metropolitan High School, an alternative school for students who find it difficult to adjust to a normal high school.
This was what Leticia calls her "wild and dangerous time." She was hanging out with gangs, getting bad grades and suffering from self-doubt. She had attended Catholic schools until her parents enrolled her at Roosevelt. The adjustment to public high school did not go well.
Her twin brother was a gang member, she faced the lament common to many teen-agers--her parents didn't understand her--and she grew up in the shadow of a sister who did well.
"I felt lost," she said. "The high school was too big, and I didn't have anyone to turn to if I had a problem."
At Metropolitan, in the environment of a smaller school, she began to blossom.
Looking back, she says, she finds it hard to believe that she ever resorted to a gun to solve a problem.
"At the time, all I wanted was revenge," she said. "But now to think I was carrying a gun, it scares me. It could have gone off at any moment and seriously hurt someone."
What Leticia needed was the opportunity to mature, said Shirley Miller, principal at Metropolitan.
"She's grown up and now has a better sense of what she wants to do with her life," said Miller. "She's learned to talk about her problems. When youngsters learn to open up and talk about their problems, they learn that they are not the only one with a problem."
"She has a little more self-confidence, self-esteem and we encourage that," Miller said.
Now 18 and with a diploma in sight, Leticia is more determined than ever.
"Thank God I'm finally a senior," she said. "After all my family has been through with me, this is something they can be proud of."
* Main story, A1