Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School has been accustomed to being at the forefront of things. It has perennially produced higher college board scores and more National Merit Scholars than almost every other high school in the Washington area.

This year, Walt Whitman - nestled among grand trees and $100,000 homes - is also near the top in drug arrests.

Three times in the past seven weeks, Montgomery County police had raided a grass plateau known as the "hill" by Whitman students, where knots of youths allegedly were smoking marijuana. Twice, police cars have been stoned in apparent retaliation. And the appearance of police has been followed by a profusion of false fire alarms.

"There have been a few splash-over effects [of the raids]," said Whitman principal Dr. Jerome Marco, referring to the three raids in the last eight weeks that have resulted in 22 arrests.

"Some kids are pulling a lot more false fire alarms in the hallways, for instance, to exacerbate the excitement. But despite the raids the vast majority of people here are still doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Despite last Wednesday's drug raid at Whitman when stones and milk cartons were hurled at arresting officers by "a few individual crazies," according to students and school officials, school business continues to flow smoothly. Students chug through crowded hallways between classes with books piled under their arms and teachers lecture in front of chalked blackboards.

But while the raids represent little more than a vague hubbub on the periphery of everyday life, the rhythm of the school day is now slightly out of kilter. The teachers have a heightened sensitivity to the marijuana controversy, and the students reflect a dash of paranoia over the arrests.

"It isn't as much fun as it used to be up here," said Eileen Flynn, a 12th grader who stood on the hill during a recent lunch period and gazed at a small sprinkling of students. "We see adults come by in janitor clothes or tennis outfits and can never tell if they're undercover cops or what."

Many Whitman teachers and parents continue to support or condone the raids despite last Wednesday's rhubarb. Both students and school officials attributed the brief melee to several "individual crazies" who were hidden behind a crowd of students when they threw objects at police.

"It's pretty hard to teach when the police come around arresting the kids," said one teacher who asked to remain unidentified. "The students get really excited and lose their sense of concentration for a while but it's certainly not disruptive to the point of anarchy. The police are just doing their duty."

Several of Whitman's 1,983 students said the raids have distracted classes.

"Every time the police come Dr. Marco talks over the p.a. system," said Carol Richards, a senior. "He says 'everyone stay seated and remain calm,' but actually everyone's curiosity just becomes more aroused and people start running outside to see what's up."

Several Whitman teachers are voluntarily policing the hill now during lunch periods while others are discussing the marijuana controversy with their students during classes, according to Principal Marco.

"The police are entitled to do what they have to do and I think most of the kids feel the same way," Marco said. "I think the awareness around here of the nature of the problem has been heightened. The police have succeeded there."

Despite the raids, which have resulted in 279 arrests of youths countywide, many Whitman students who don't smoke marijuana are supportive of those who do. "It's all right with me," said Mike Lessin, a Whitman senior who admitted being reluctant to frequent the hill. "I just don't want to be around people when they party because of the busts."

Susan Howard, a Whitman student leader, said police action is directed against the wrong age group. "I think probably 90 percent of the students here have tried marijuana," she said winding her way through a crowd of students between classes. "The police are 10 years too late. If they really wanted to do something they'd concentrate on the elementary and junior high schools."

While many smokers and nonsmokers avoid the hill, electing to stay inside the building during free time or gather at an asortment of other outside locations, a group of hard-core marijuana smokers frequents a hide-away located in a grove of trees on an embankment behind Whittier Wood Elementary School.

"This is plan A," said one long blond-haired Whitman junior who sat cross-legged in jeans on a pile of leaves rolling several joints for about 15 students. "Can't go down to the hill any more so we all come up here. It's relaxing, man, you know? I think I even learn better when I'm high."

Another student, with long brown hair above red plaid shirt, led a reporter several yards away into the grove and pointed at a gigantic broadleafed maple tree, where two-by-fours had been nailed 30 feet up the trunk.

"That's plan B," he said proudly. "We're going to make a watchtower up there so we'll know when the cops come.You can see for miles around from up there."

The student, who said he was arrested for disorderly conduct during a Halloween student demonstration at the county police station in Bethesda, explained that the tower would be strong enough to hold four chairs, pointed in four different directions.

"I know what I'm doing," he said. "I've got a heap of high school credits in engineering."