Whenever Rashawn Williams dashed out of the house on his way to school last fall, he left his grandmother wondering whether he was rushing off to class or chasing his own death.
Rashawn, then 15, was packing a loaded .38-caliber revolver to George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles.
"I just knew if he continued doing what he was doing, I'd find him lying on a slab somewhere," said his grandmother, Ruth Peters. "I prayed to have him taken off the streets before he got himself killed."
Desperate to save her grandson, she anonymously called school officials and turned him in.
The case of Rashawn Williams reflects a modern reality of life in Los Angeles schools: Caught with a weapon on a campus, Rashawn was quickly expelled with no guarantee he could return.
Prompted by the fatal shootings of students at Fairfax and Reseda high schools this year, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Board of Education made expulsion automatic for any student caught with a gun. As a result, 90 students were expelled between Feb. 1 and May 17--double the number in the same period last year.
In recent months, the district has expelled a 13-year-old with a Taser gun at Mount Vernon Junior High, a 16-year-old with a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol at Hollywood High, a 15-year-old Adams Middle School student with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, a 15-year-old Huntington Park student with a .357 Magnum, a 17-year-old Gardena High student who brandished a sawed-off shotgun, and a 14-year-old student at the Palms Magnet School with a pellet gun that resembled a 9-millimeter pistol.
The children, including one 8 years old, came from throughout the district and offered explanations as varied as the weapons they carried. They said they brought guns to school for protection, to show and tell or because they had the urge to be macho. For some it was a simple matter of curiosity; others were looking for trouble. Some claimed they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, carrying a gun for someone else.
Although school officials say there is no "typical" student caught with a gun, Rashawn shares many characteristics with others: a broken home, member of a gang, a criminal record and an unfocused future.
Rashawn knew it was wrong to carry a gun, but he maintains that he had no other choice after he was shot at by a gang rival. "I'd rather be caught with a gun than without it," he said.
He started carrying a gun to school only days after someone shot at him. Rashawn was riding in a car with two friends when someone on the street started shooting at them.
No one was hurt, but the windshield shattered, causing the driver to lose control of the car and crash. Rashawn and his friends were chased to a nearby house, where they took refuge. He recognized the gunman as a fellow Washington student and he knew he would see him again.
Instead of reporting the incident to the police, he took matters into his own hands. It was not the first time he had been shot at in a neighborhood where his homeboys watched his back at the same time they made him a target.
With the $100 his grandmother had given him for back-to-school shopping, Rashawn bought a .38-caliber revolver from a cash-hungry street addict. He tucked the weapon into the pocket of his baggy pants and it became part of his attire at Washington High.
For several days, he carried the gun, but never ran into the student who had shot at him. After school officials received the phone tip from his grandmother, Rashawn was confronted by security guards during a crowded change of periods and was asked to empty his pockets. There was nothing he could do.
Rashawn was thrown out of school. Because he was on probation from a drug-selling conviction, he was sent to juvenile camp for six months.
But the time away from the neighborhood answered the prayers of his grandmother. Someday, Peters said, he would fully appreciate what she did.
"It wasn't easy," Peters said. "He was hanging with the same crew that got him in trouble. I knew he was carrying a gun, and I had to do something to save his life. It wasn't long after I placed the call that they had him."
Among her 11 children and two-dozen grandchildren, Rashawn stood out as the one with the most potential to succeed, said Peters, a 65-year-old Louisiana native.
"He was the smartest and the prettiest boy in the family," she said. "Not all the decisions he made were bright, but studies came natural to him. He just never had much of a chance."
While in camp, Rashawn began to change, Peters said. He wrote her letters expressing his hopes, saying that he bore no resentment for the unusual effort she had made to save his life.
"I realized that I needed to get away," he said.
Back at home, Rashawn's dreams for the future were still clouded by his inability to overcome bitterness about the past.
He watched an addiction to drugs cripple his mother. He has slowly learned to swallow his anger at a father who was never home. "I really don't care for my father too much," he said. "I don't blame him for what I got myself into, but he could have been there for me."
By age 12, Rashawn was living with his grandmother because his mother could no longer care for him and he was already having run-ins with the law. It was about that time that his small hand cradled a gun for the first time--a gun he got from a young friend. "It was kind of a surprise to have a gun," he said. "I fired it in the air and felt 'Wow!' It's like television."
By 14, he had spent long stretches at juvenile hall--for drug dealing, graffiti and theft--and no longer cried after being arrested by police. He had Neighborhood tattooed on his arm with a straight pin and ink. A thin scar above his left eye was a reminder of when he was jumped by rival gang members outside a liquor store in their territory. He was a member of the 111th Street Crips, and made fast money selling crack until he was arrested and sent to juvenile camp for the first time.
A year later, he was caught in the net of the district's expulsion policy.
Following the Fairfax and Reseda high school shootings, the Board of Education tightened its policy. Those expelled can apply for reinstatement, but there is no guarantee they will be accepted.
The policy was not adopted to reform students such as Rashawn, school officials say. Instead, it was designed to make campuses "safe havens" for students.
"There are some unfortunate aspects of the policy," acknowledged Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias. "But even more unfortunate is the violence that these guns bring to schools."
But critics charge that some kind of reform should be part of the policy.
Although students have the option of applying at private schools or in another public school district, there is no guarantee they will be accepted. Many without resources or parents who care just end up on the street.
Those opposed to the policy argue that putting teen-agers such as Rashawn on the streets is not the answer because--without specialized counseling--they tend to get deeper into trouble. The American Civil Liberties Union has denounced the policy as a form of "academic capital punishment."
Opponents say they do not oppose punishing students caught with guns. But they say that automatic expulsion should not be the only weapon in the district's arsenal of deterrents.
"If you wanted to prevent lung cancer, you wouldn't advise surgery as a preventive strategy," said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, an assistant dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, who has written about teen-age violence. "We can expel kids, get metal detectors and try juveniles as adults, but this is not prevention."
While he was in camp for violating probation because he was caught with a gun, Rashawn tried to figure out what he could do to turn things around. At 16, time was running out.
His girlfriend gave birth to their son, Rashawn Jr., a month after he went to camp and, like his own father, he was not going to be there for his son.
"It was time to grow up," he said. "I want to change for my son. I want to be a role model for him. I don't want him to grow up thinking I wasn't here for him, to say, 'My daddy was gangbanging, so I want to gangbang too.' "
He also needed to reconcile his absence with his girlfriend, who at 17 was a mother trying to return to school and raise a newborn without much help.
In April, he was released from camp, ready to embark on a different course. But he returned to the same neighborhood with more time on his hands--and could not go back to school.
He moved in with his 31-year-old uncle, Michael Peters, hoping that by living with another male he might find it easier to set his life on a different course. But change has not come easy. "He still has a lot of the street in him," said his uncle.
Rashawn is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and looks and acts much older than his years. Since returning from juvenile camp, he has attempted to stay off the street and spend time with his son.
"Rashawn is trying," said probation officer Steve Wells, who handles his case along with 50 other at-risk teen-agers. "He's not violating, (but he is) struggling along and doing OK. He stays in contact with me and his family is cooperative."
But Rashawn, he adds, is like scores of other young men among his caseload.
"These are kids who haven't been exposed to a lot of things," he said. "They really want to do something but they don't know what to do."
During a recent visit to the probation office, Rashawn sat next to Wells, talking about his plans. His hair was neatly shaved in a style inspired by his basketball heroes, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. His natural good looks and ease of expression belied the hardships to which he has grown accustomed.
"Have you followed through with the job application I gave you?" asked Wells.
"No, I haven't had a chance to."
Neither had he enrolled in a home study program in math and English operated by the Probation Department.
The pull of the streets remained strong. He had attended an outdoor rap concert that was stopped when fighting broke out between gangs. In the midst of the melee, a 16-year-old boy was killed by sheriff's deputies.
"That could have just as easily been you," Wells warned him.
Rashawn left in a hurry, but with no particular place to go.
He caught a ride to Washington High School, where he watched from the street as friends received their diplomas during the school's graduation exercises.
Someday, he said, he would get a job, a good job in construction or working with computers. He will be eligible to apply for readmittance to school in September but is not sure the district will accept him.
"I've lost a lot of time," said Rashawn, who should be entering the 11th grade but has barely enough credits to qualify as a high school freshman.
He was not quite certain where it all went wrong, or what he needed to do next.
"Sometimes I wish I could go back in time," he said.
Most of all, he said, he wanted to survive in a world that seemed to conspire against young men like him.
"I'd rather be alive than a statistic," he said. "I have a son now. I don't want him to grow up looking at my obituary."
* A TRIGGER TO TROUBLE: Involvement with guns changes lives of three students. B1