The hula hoops were flying, and chaperon Harris Hauffen refereed the game from the sidelines.

Soon the kids were decorating T-shirts, stenciling "Dale la espalda a las drogas" -- "Turn your back on drugs" -- and adding other flourishes. Hauffen brought a CD player into the room, and the kids jumped excitedly. "Daddy Yankee!" one girl called, starting to dance. When the tees were set on the porch to dry, Hauffen inspected each of them. "I better not see no gang symbols out here," he warned.

It was a tranquil, getaway weekend near the Chesapeake Bay. Hauffen, the patient high-schooler known for a mean merengue, was helping oversee a group of Montgomery County Latino students -- kids deemed at risk of joining gangs, dropping out of school, getting pregnant and doing drugs: succumbing, in short, to the swath of pitfalls that face many Latinos.

As the weekend ended, Hauffen called his time at the retreat some of "the happiest days of my life." He didn't want to return home.

Hauffen had had a troubled past. But at Identity, the Latino outreach program that organized this retreat, no one could foresee that in three months he would be charged with attempted murder and locked in a Montgomery County jail. Police would accuse him of being a member of MS-13, the region's most lethal gang.

He was arrested Friday, one of five accused of stabbing two young men at Montgomery County's Springbrook High School. In the report delineating 11 serious charges against Hauffen, police say he and the others "were all identified by multiple witnesses as individuals that participated in the attack."

Hauffen's return to Springbrook was supposed to be a fresh beginning. He had enrolled in summer school with the hopes, says his mother, of restarting 12th grade and graduating only one year behind schedule.

He had even made a bet about it with Daniel Arretche, a program director at Identity. They were eating at McDonald's, where a contest's grand prize was a GameBoy. Hauffen wanted one terribly. Arretche told him: Graduate from high school, and I'll give you $200. With that money, the 17-year-old could buy a GameBoy, if he still wanted one.

Deal, Hauffen said.

He was also planning on spending the weeks between summer school and the start of the regular school year in Washington state, camping and hiking with an all-expenses-paid vacation with Outward Bound. It was a gift from Identity for all the great work he had done with them.

With Identity, he thrived. But at the end of the day, Hauffen had to go home.

A Troubled Path

Hauffen was born in El Salvador to a man of German descent whom he never knew and a mother who, when he was about 8 years old, left him and his older sister and moved to the United States. Three years later, when Hauffen was finishing elementary school, the children came north, too, his mother says.

She is telling this now, sitting at her dining room table, which is covered in a lace cloth with a pile of napkins and a train-engine cookie jar in the middle. She cries, picking up a napkin to wipe her eyes. In the corner of the tidy living room is an 8-by-10 photo of Hauffen from eighth grade. He's wearing a Nautica sweat shirt and the gold chain he received for confirmation at church. She asks that her name not be used.

By the time Hauffen and his older sister arrived in the United States, their home had changed: Their mother had married a stranger to them -- a painter who works hard and makes a good living, she says, and who has provided her and her children with this neatly appointed Silver Spring home near the Prince George's County line. Hauffen told friends that he and his stepfather rarely got along.

Last year, his mother called Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan's office and spoke with his county outreach officer, Joe Heiney-Gonzalez. She told him, Heiney-Gonzalez says, that she was worried. Hauffen was having problems in school, and she feared the possibility of gang involvement. He directed her to Identity, which hired Hauffen. He spent afternoons there, doing research about HIV prevention, preparing materials for Identity's after-school programs, helping with computerized spreadsheets.

"He felt useful and important" at Identity, Arretche says. "He's a boy who needed opportunities."

His mother, too, was looking for work. She has been diagnosed with cancer of the uterus and was trying to make extra money. Identity hired her to make dinners for the Latino parents' meetings held during the week, so in the small kitchen of their home, she would prepare between 250 and 300 taquitos and pupusas, complete with spicy salsa.

She would lay them in a large, orange cooler that Hauffen carried with him on the Metro he took to the Identity offices in Gaithersburg, except on the occasions when his older sister, who works in the office of a construction company, gave him a ride.

For the last five years, Identity has worked with at-risk Latino youths throughout Montgomery County, and many of its intervention programs stem from a 2001 survey it conducted of 500 Latinos ages 14 to 19. The survey showed that, within the previous year:

* 40 percent had been in a physical fight;

* 7.7 percent carried a gun; 22 percent carried another type of weapon, such as a knife or a club;

* 20 percent were involved in gang-related activities; 11.1 percent said they were members of a gang;

* 14.5 percent had seriously contemplated suicide; another 34.5 percent had been depressed every day for at least two weeks;

* Nearly half spent zero time during the week in school clubs or sports; another 53 percent spent no time in such activities outside of school.

Last year, Identity served five middle and high schools in the county. This coming year, it is expending to 10 and has received applications from 21 schools asking to be among those 10.

Diego Uriburu, an Identity co-founder, understands why so many of these young people are at risk.

"When you're an 11-year-old or 12-year-old, and you have to protect your mother from horrible abuse? When you see horrible things happening, and you have no one to talk to? And who's really there for them? Who's really there?" he asks.

The gangs.

Wanted: Escape

Uriburu says that Hauffen could very likely have been wrongly accused: "We don't know what happened, and there were definitely many kids in this place." It is still possible, he says, that the police arrested the wrong boy: Maybe he ran -- to escape getting drawn in -- and that's why they nabbed him.

He adds that trying to escape such intense gang activity is something the Identity staff hears about from students -- kids who "tell us, 'I need an escape this weekend because they' " -- meaning the gang -- " 'are requiring me to hit someone, or kill someone.' "

Identity staffers hadn't wanted Hauffen to return to Springbrook. They'd been hoping to enroll him in Montgomery College's Gateway to College program, where he could have simultaneously earned high school and college credits. He had completed two of the essays required for admission, but when it came time for him to sign up for an "evaluation session," he told Arretche that he wasn't excited about the program. He was serious about earning his high school diploma. But he was going to return to the Silver Spring high school where he had run into problems in the past.

Not long before he did so, he got a tattoo on the front of his right forearm.

The first time Identity co-executive director Candace Kattar, who procured for him the scholarship to Outward Bound, saw it, she told him: "Honey, why did you paint this on yourself? Go wash your arm."

When she saw him again, she said, "Honey, go wash that off."

He was afraid to her tell that the words inked into his arm weren't paint. They were permanent.

They said: "Born to die."