The Howard County School Board has rejected a proposal by the county Parent-Teacher Association Council that all smoking be banned at schools here. Instead, the board voted to reduce the penalty for a first-time violation of the school system's smoking rules.

Although agreeing that smoking is undesirable, board members and school administrators said during hearings on the issue that banning student smoking is unrealistic, leading only to students sneaking cigarettes in the lavatories.

A 1972 School Board decision permits high school students to smoke in designated outdoor areas at their schools if they have written permission form their parents.

That policy "has the backing of the principals, who feel this is as much as can be enforced," said Charlotte E. Reeder, board chairman, at the meeting earlier this month.

At the meeting, the board also set policy on drug and alcohol use in the county schools, establishing penalties ranging from a five-day suspension and/or counseling to expulsion.

Until now, several students told the board, punishment tended to vary according to the student involved and the situation. While principals might suspend a poor student or a troublemaker for a drug offense, "if a kid's a straight-A student or a jock, they won't do it," said Jane Beresford, a junior at Centennial High School, just north of Columbia.

Students, and some parents, argued that penalties for drug abuse should be tailored to the type of drug involved. "Many (students) consider smoking marijuana to be a minor vice, and taking pills to be going off the deep end," one high school girl said.

Board members refused, however, to distinguish between drugs. They voted to impse flat penalties that start with a five-day suspension for use or possession of any drugs or alcohol and end with permanent expulsion from the school system for a third offense.

Stiffer penalties were set for drug distributions - suspension for the remainder of the semester for a first offense and expulsion for a second offense.

A variety of witnesses argued before the board that the drug policy should be more therapeutic than punitive. But a top administrator said his experience with students caused him to disagree.

"It's an exhibition. They're doing it in school to fight the system. They're not addicts," John F. Sullivan, assistant superintendent for school administration, maintained. Sullivan said the majority of student drug offenses involve marijuana or, less often, pills. Other drugs are rare, he said.

As finally adopted, the board drug policy requires mandatory counseling when students are suspended for drug distribution and provides for counseling either along with or in place of suspension for drug possession or use.

The newly modified policy on smoking in high schools reduces the penalty for a first offense from a three-day suspension to a parent-student-administrator conference. Second and third offenses bring suspensions for three and five days and parent conferences, while a fourth offense brings indefinite suspension.

The PTA Council last spring urged the board to forbid all smoking on school property. Proponents of the council position note that Howard County has what has been described as one of the strongest anti-smoking laws in the country for the general public - all smoking in public places is prohibited except in specially designated areas.

Instead of following the PTA council proposal, the School Board accepted the recommendations of an 11-member committee it appointed last fall to study the situation. Comprised of students, teachers, principals and supervisors, the committee reprted that complete prohibition of smoking in the high schools would "aggravate student unrest."

It also suggested that the school system, at an estimated cost of more than $44,000, provide paved, roofed areas outside each of the nine county high schools for use by students who smoke.

The paved ground would be easier to clean up, the board was told, and the roofs would hopefully keep students from going inside the schools to smoke in bad weather.

Board members dismissed that proposal, however, as amounting to a taxpayers' subsidy of teen-age smoking. The board did accept reommendations for increased emphasis in the schools on the dangers of smoking and for voluntary workshops, during school hours, for teachers and students who want to quit the habit.

One board member, who described himself as a reformed smoker, declared that changes in the school smoking policy mean little if the rules are not enforced strictly.

"Neither the administration nor the faculty will give this the kind of push it needs," said Fred K. Schoenbrodt. "If you want to stop the smoking in the buildings, I think it can be stopped."