Montgomery County school officials have learned that a small group of children -- six sixth-graders and a third-grader -- were smoking marijuana and drinking liquor on the way to and from an elementary school in a comfortable Silver Spring neighborhood.

Until authorities found out about it last month, the children were stashing their contraband in the woods behind the Oak View Elementary School in Silver Spring before class each day and retrieving it after school, according to information pieced together by school officials from talks with children and parents involved.

Officials searched the woods March 18 after learning that the activity had gone on at least several days prior to that.

"We were too late," said Oak View principal Drucille Stafford. "I think they'd gotten wind of the possibility of being found out."

No drugs or alcohol was found in the search.

Pot smoking and drinking are not uncommon among high school students generally. School officials said that this was the largest reported incident of usage among elementary students in county although a sixth-grade boy at another school was caught with marijuana last October. The precise ages of the students involved at Oak View could not be determined yesterday.

Third-graders are generally 8 or 9 years old and sixth-graders are 11 or 12 years old.

One source familiar with the incident said that one of the children had taken some marijuana his parents had around the house, but Stafford said she had no confirmation of this.

"I've heard 10 different rumors in the last two weeks," she said.

She added that the parents of the seven students involved had formed themselves into a committee to try and determine where the contraband came from and to decide how to tighten their supervision of the children.

"Most of the kids had tried the marijuana, even if only on one occasion," Stafford said yesterday. "Some of them did not admit it to me, but they did admit it to their parent." One boy, she added, has maintained that he didn't try the pot, although he did drink some liquor.

Stafford is also adamant in maintaining that, when she questioned the children individually two weeks ago, none of them appeared to be at all under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Another source familiar with the incident, however, said that one of the children was affected visibly on the day that the pupils involved were questioned.

This dispute and the question of whether the children were known to use or stash their contraband on school grounds are keys to questions being raised in the school community on the handling of the incident.

Mrs. Stafford confirmed what she had told school administrators in a report earlier this week: she talked to the students individually, confirmed what one parent had told her of the situation, then had each student call his or her parents from her office to tell them what had happened.

After that, Mrs. Stafford said yesterday, the details of the incident and the identities of the students involved were not spread beyond the school staff, the parents and her office, until she filed her report with the school system's drug control office last Monday.

According to school system spokesman Kenneth Muis, as long as the actual use of the drug took place off school grounds. Stafford had no obligation to inform police of the incident, nor to suspend the students involved.

School system policy, however, requires both that students involved with drugs on school grounds be suspended or expelled and that the proper law enforcement authorities be notified.

Both Muir and Stafford said yesterday that the woods behind the school where the children said they hid the drugs are the property of the parks system.

One Oak View parent was concerned enough by the situation to call Montgomery County police Lt. Paul Whitling, the lieutenant said yesterday.

Whitling said he did not pursue the matter after school officials failed to return his phone call.

Parents of six of the students involved did meet with the principal in the days following the discovery. The parent of a seventh did not come in for a talk after being notified, according to Stafford's report to the county education administration.

"As children grow up they try things," Stafford said yesterday."It's the responsibility of the school to become aware of it and redirect the kids so they don't grow up and become identified and stigmatized by this."

However, one police officer groused yesterday, "If the schools won't tell us when they have drug troubles, how are we to know what places we should worry about, and what places we should keep an eye on?"

Stafford said that the children were "very contrite, very embarrassed. They said they were just trying something" and there was never any consideration given to suspending them.