The children streamed out of Kettering Middle School into a suburban idyll of pastel houses and manicured lawns.
To members of a new citizens patrol trailing them in minivans and sport-utility vehicles on a recent afternoon, the scene seemed rife with menace.
"Those guys -- do you know them?" Gaston Finney asked a fellow patroller, pointing to two boys in baggy jeans who stood chatting on a corner.
She didn't. And so within minutes, one of two Prince George's County police officers assigned to the patrol was called in to get the boys' names and hurry them along.
If the patrol's tactics seem a bit heavy-handed, said Phil Lee, the organizer, it is because it is trying to squelch an unsettling trend. Since September, there have been at least five incidents in which middle-school students walking home in this suburb have been beaten up by classmates or, in one case, students from nearby Largo High School.
During that Oct. 29 confrontation, police said, a female high school student grabbed Fatimah Rashad, 13, and began banging her head on the pavement. Fatimah's mother, Najmah -- who said she ran toward the school after a panicked cell phone call from the girl -- tried to pry her daughter free and was struck with the butt of a knife by a second female high school student.
Prince George's police said that the girls have been charged with first- and second-degree assault. The Washington Post does not identify minors who are arrested or accused by police of committing a crime.
The other episodes have "mostly been what we used to call 'fisticuffs,' " said Lee, who is president of the civic federation representing the cluster of subdivisions that makes up Kettering. "No one has had to be transported to the hospital. But any incident is bad. It's a big deal, and I'm treating it that way."
Since 1999, when two students who felt picked on went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, school districts nationwide have adopted an array of anti-bullying programs.
However, the after-school patrol in Kettering -- which Lee said he will keep in place "as long as necessary" -- is an unusually aggressive response, experts said.
"It seems to me that they've taken it one step further. . . . This is definitely new," said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit organization that studies strategies to stop bullying.
Lee, 52, started the patrol this month at the behest of the parent-teacher association at Kettering Middle School. So far all five volunteers are members of the civic federation, including Deborah Spencer, a homemaker who is secretary of the federation's board.
Spencer, who has children attending Largo High School, said her role was to encourage the children to head home quickly rather than hang out in small crowds on the sidewalk. "Anytime you have kids congregating, that's when you get fights," she said.
On this recent day, she stood at the most heavily traveled corner of the neighborhood alongside Lee as Finney and the police officers circled in their vehicles.
Once in a while, Finney pulled up near one of the children walking home and asked the child to point out any classmates who had given the child trouble in the past.
Lee's cell phone rang. It was Finney with his latest bit of intelligence.
Lee listened, then hung up and got on a walkie-talkie to Bruce Hill, one of the police officers.
"Bruce, there's a young boy with a basketball walking up Joyceton Drive," Lee said. "Let's find out what his name is."
The point, Lee explained, was to let potential bullies know they were being watched.
The patrol also acts as a sort of informal truancy squad. The two boys Finney spotted chatting on the corner, for instance, were students at Largo High School, which still was in session. The boys told the officer they had just returned from dentist appointments.
Officials at Kettering Middle School, who declined to be interviewed, also assist the patrol by pointing out which students belong.
One potential downside, Lee conceded, is that the students -- nearly all of whom are black -- may get the message that police officers see them as delinquents. Eventually, Lee said, his plan is for the officers to remain on call but out of sight.
"It's really important that the police not be seen as the enemy," said Lee, who is black.
Jerel Johnson, an eighth-grader, said he and his friends were less bothered by police involvement than they were about the pressure to not stand around after school. "They're all saying, 'Man, they should leave us alone because we don't have time to talk at school,' " he said.
Nevertheless, Jerel, 13, said he favors keeping the patrol because he thought it would stop fights.
Fatimah's support is more personal. In the days after her attack, she awaited every dismissal bell with dread. Now, she said, "I've stopped feeling worried."