In Gwen Rocque's classroom at Suitland High School, amid the inspirational posters and the chalk dust, there was grief and anger and confusion yesterday as 25 students talked about the death of a young black man that could not be shrugged away.

"You are supposed to think of home as a safe place, but you can't do that anymore, because the people with the guns have automobiles and they can go anywhere, looking for trouble," Nicole Johnson, 16, told her nodding classmates. "People ask me, 'Why don't you go outside anymore?' and I'm like, 'Well, I'm living in fear right now.' "

The killing of James "Jay" Bias, 20, has hit hard in the hallways at Suitland and other schools in Prince George's County, where Bias grew up and where he was shot to death outside a shopping mall near Hyattsville last week. {A Prince George's County judge set bail at $350,000 for the suspected driver in the Bias slaying. Details on Page B1.}

It was the second time tragedy had visited the Bias family. Jay's older brother, Len, a University of Maryland basketball star, died in 1986 of a cocaine overdose in a case that rocked collegiate athletics.

Rocque asked the juniors and seniors in her black studies class to discuss their reactions to the killing, in the hope that together they could make some sense of it.

"There is a lot of concern about why this happened -- and why this happened in a place no one thought it would happen," said Girvin Liggans, 16, a Suitland junior.

Liggans is a member of Rites of Passage, a club for black males at Suitland that decided to make gun control its community project this year after hearing Bias's father, James, talk about the subject on television last week.

The students had felt fear long before Bias was gunned down in the parking lot of Prince George's Plaza. Some, like Johnson, had seen neighbors killed "execution-style" in their apartment buildings. Others had acquaintances who had paid the price for choosing the fast life of drug dealers.

But there is something different about the Bias case, the students said. This killing could not be shrugged off as the comeuppance of another greedy "hustler." The victim was unarmed, going about his business on his lunch break. The victim could have been one of them.

"Just because you didn't do something stupid or break any rules, that doesn't mean you are safe," said Leonaye Simpson, 16. "You can look at someone the wrong way or be in a store when it gets robbed. It can be anything."

Many of the students were struck by the fact that Bias was involved in an altercation with a man apparently bent on fighting, even after Bias tried to defuse the situation by leaving the mall.

"His life was not valued. Even if he was creeping on this guy's wife, he didn't deserve to die," said Lyrica Welch, 17.

The information left them confused, they said, on how they would handle a similar situation, even though their first inclination would be to try to talk through their differences with a hostile stranger.

"If you try to rationalize with someone and they want to use violence, are you going to keep standing there and keep talking?" asked John Wooden, 16. "You can't reason with some of the fools out there today."

Jamie Richards told of a meeting he had Monday with a student at the District's Coolidge High School in which he had amicably asked the student why he was wearing his pants inside out. Later, as Richards was leaving, the student approached him, apparently angry because Richards had mentioned the boy's fashion statement to a girl.

Another student there said to him: " 'Why are you getting mad? We black people have to stick together.' . . . I didn't know what he had under his coat, and we just left there fast," Richards said.

"It's just the way society is going that if someone approaches us, we have to run," Johnson said. "If someone looks the wrong way at you, you have to run. We can't even talk things out."

But Welch implored her classmates not to give in to their fear.

"What we hear in the news shouldn't make us afraid. It should make us want to do something. You can't keep minding your business and minding your business because we are steadily dying . . . . If we just mind our own business, our problems will never be solved," she said.