PALO ALTO, CALIF. -- Computer ethics are a hot topic today.

Stories on destructive computer viruses and electronic snooping flood the nation's newspapers. And software publishers have greatly stepped up their war on corporate software piracy.

But in too many of these stories, the culprits have been young -- many times teenage students who don't seem to understand that releasing a virus is an act of vandalism and that pirating software is theft.

The Computer Learning Foundation here thinks it has an answer to this apparent moral vacuum: integrate the teaching of computer ethics with computer-based learning in the classroom.

In previous years, as part of the Computer Learning Month it sponsors each October, the foundation has encouraged schools nationwide to use computers not only to teach about technology but also as a tool to teach everything else.

This year, though, it also developed a "Code of Responsible Computing," which it sent to an estimated 96 percent of the schools in the United States and Canada. The code calls for students, teachers and parents to respect the privacy of computer data, to respect the ownership of programs and data, and to refrain from using computers or software illegally or in ways that harm others.

The foundation hopes to encourage schools to adopt the code and expose students to ethics issues from an early age.

"The law only enforces that which society believes in," foundation director Sally Bowman says. For too long, she believes, schools have neglected computer ethics amid the proliferation of classroom computers.

So have parents, evidently.

A recent study cited in the San Jose Mercury News found that large numbers of students in elementary and high schools think it's OK to cheat on tests. Small wonder, then, that students who see or hear about adults who regularly copy programs might think it fine to do the same.

In a world where adults routinely pirate copies of 1-2-3, can you expect kids to know it's not right to copy that nifty game?