When emotionally disturbed students are disruptive at the Cheltenham Center in Prince George's County, staff members have no place to take them except outside or into a small yellow cubicle that once served as a bathroom.

Problems have plagued the center for mentally and emotionally disturbed youngsters since it opened four years ago. At various times, school offials have taken time out from their schedules to launch campaigns against the rats, pigeons and roaches that have made a home of the 19-year-old building where students attend classes.

Last summer, the gymnasium was kept off limits for several days because of bird lice infestation. Eventually, the entire school was closed down for a day to allow a team of exterminators to rid the gym of the lice.

No matter how cold, rainy or muddy it is outside, staff members and students must walk several hundred yards from the main building to get to the cafeteria, infirmary and residential areas to the main administrative offices.

At least two or three times a year, the school's antiquated sewage system causes raw sewage backups in the showers of the residential dormitories, school officials said.

In a constant battle to end crises at Cheltenham, officials at the 80-student special center located in the heart of southern Prince George's have spent as much time trying to get their building in proper shape as they have working to get their pilot program on track.

Cheltenham's objective is to provide education and counseling for mentally handicapped children from Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties. Officials at the center say that while the cooperative effort has helped them create a model eduational program, it has played havoc with the funding -- as evidenced by the problems with the building that houses the center.

"I don't think anyone wants to take full responsibility for the upkeep of the building," said Cheltenham Director Henry Gromada. "Everyon passes the buck."

During one three-month period last year, school officials wrote 130 work repair orders for a building where one can still find electrical wires hanging from light fixtures, emergency exit doors that do not work, and uncovered hot radiator pipes.

"Thank God, nobody's gotten hurt yet," said Nicholas Girardi, Cheltenham principal. "These problems have been with us for the last four years and after a while you just learn to get along with them as best you can."

Cheltenham's pilot program for children with moderate to severe mental handicaps began in 1976 as a cooperative effort between the state Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene and of Juvenile Services, and the school boards of Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties.

Gromada said that while the state juvenile services department "owns the building, it doesn't want to foot the whole bill for repair and renovation. tThe school boards and the health department help out, but they tell us they have limited resources and can do only so much. So what happens is, we're caught in the middle."

"The problem is not the program. The problem is the physical plant," added state delegate Lorraine M. Sheehan (D-26) of Prince George's. "Nobody's in charge, so nobody feels that they are responsible. The juvenile services people have been totally irresponsible. It's certainly an example of bureaucracy as its worst."

Officials at Boys' Village, a state juvenile detention center that serves as landlord of the building, counter that the maintenance problems are not their fault. Cheltenham is located on Boys' Village property.

"That facility wasn't designed for any kind of program for mentally disturbed children," said Harold Johnson, director of Boys' Village. "I think the heart of the problem is that that's an old building and the school has a lot of destructive students."

Johnson said Boys' Village has launched a $60,000 maintenance project for the building, but that "there is simply not enough money in the operating budget to cover all of the costs."

Cheltenham -- which has approximately 70 students, half of whom live in residential dormitories -- has also been at the center of a tug-of-war between Prince George's and the other three, less-populous counties, whose officials believe they should have their own institution.

It was this belief and some reservations in the state health department about expanding the Cheltenham program that let to the defeat last year of a $7.5 million bonding bill in the state legislature. The funds would have helpled Cheltenham upgrade its physical plant and its educational program.

"People from the tri-county area (Calvert, St. Mary's, Charles) came up to testify against the bill," said Sheehan, who along with most of the Prince George's delegation supported the legislation. "They wanted their own program and they thought that voting to give more money to Cheltenham would make that impossible."

In the end, the legislators agreed to commission a study to evaluate health needs in southern Maryland.

A dispute even erupted over who was to do the study. Neither the state departments of health or juvenile services wanted to conduct it, and finally a third group, Southern Maryland Health Services, was given the task.

Results of the study are scheduled to come out in March and may have a major influence on two bills now pending in the Maryland General Assembly.

One bill, co-sponsored by Sheehan and Delegate Charles Ryan (D-25) of Prince George's, would give Prince George's $7.5 million in bonding authority for Cheltenham. The other, sponsored by delegates from the tri-county area, would provide bonding authority for a $2 million program similar to the Cheltenham project, to be located in the tri-county area.

"What we're trying to do is avoid any kind of a turf-battle," said Sheehan.

"We understand their wanting to have their own program, but it doesn't make any sense to battle over this."

Cheltenham officials say they hope the legislation will pass or some other form of assistance will come from the state.

"Our staff has been dedicated, but there is only so much frustration anyone can take," said Girardi. "The field that we work in is known for having a high burn-out rate. Unless there is some kind of hope, some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, I think we could have some real motivation problems here."