For the third time in six years the Fairfax County School Board sex education.

This time they hope to get it right.

When the subject was broached in 1975, the board held 44 public hearings -- many of them scenes of bitter battles between vocal groups of opponents and supporters. The outcome was a "watered-down" program, with severe limits on the topics that could be discussed in the classroom. The course, which is the current program used in Fairfax County, has been described by some observers as nothing more than basic anatomy.

Since then, few educators have been happy with the results.

Teachers have been reluctant to teach sex education because of strict requirements about what can -- and cannot -- be discussed.

Students have stayed away in droves (only 2 percent of all high school students took the course last year), and several of the county's 23 high schools abandoned sex education altogether.

Parents were disillusioned, too. In a survey last year, 70 percent of the respondents said they favored expanding the program. While the survey procedures came under fire from some parents, school officials defended the poll, and came back with another survey this winter that supported the previous results.

A year ago, the school board reluctantly agreed to consider expanding the program, but the specter of 44 acrimonious public hearings would not disappear.

"I just wish it (sex education) would go away," school board member Anthony T. Lane said early last winter when a proposal for expanding the program was discussed.

But it didn't go away, and school board members now are two weeks away from the only public hearing scheduled on the issue.

Board members and school officials say they are keeping their fingers crossed that the pitched battle of 1975 will not be reenacted.

"I haven't had a single call (opposing the program), which is amazing," school board chairman Ann P. Kahn said earlier this week. "I think the fact that the materials have been approved by a broadly based community group has a lot to do with it.

"Most reasonable people have looked at this and realize it is a good program."

Some skeptics, however, have another explanation for the apparent lack of community response. They say the community is not responding because it hasn't been given enough time to examine the program.

"Generally, I'm not at all unhappy about the material I've seen," says former school board member Robert Smith, who describes himself as a conservative on the issue of sex education. "It's just being handled poorly."

Smith's main objection is with the review process. School officials made the books and films, which may be included in the course, available to the public during the past week -- but by appointment only and during the day.

Earlier this week, the school board was to make available at public meetings held in four locations the films and the written materials that are proposed for the program.

"I took off from work to look at the program," Smith said last week. "But how many people are able to do that?"

The materials for the new program were approved earlier this month by a 32-member committee made up of school employes, clergy, students, parents and health professionals. After many "lively discussions," as one committee member described it, members agreed upon text materials and basic guidelines for the new course.

The proposed program would be part of 10th grade biology and would last from two to four weeks. The controversial subjects of abortion, homosexuality and masturbation would not be included in the materials. although teachers would be free to discuss any subject that came up in class. Students could be excused from the sex education part of biology course if their parents requested in writing.

Members of the citizen's review committee, including those for and against a more liberal program, agree on one point -- the high quality of materials selected for the course -- and continue to disagree on several others.

"The materials are extremely well done," says Charles Sickels, a committee member who also belongs to the Fairfax County Parents for a Positive Education, a group formed specifically to monitor objection is why we need to tell 10th graders about contraceptives . . . philosophically the argument is 'better safe than sorry,' but I just can't buy that."

Committee member Sandra Kennedy, president of the County Council of PTAs Family Life Committee and a strong supporter of liberalized sex education, agrees in part with Sickels.

"The staff has found some very beautiful films," Kennedy says. "There is a reverence for life that really comes through . . . I don't know how anyone could sit through those and not be moved."

Sickels and Kennedy part company when it comes to the part of the program that would allow teachers and students to discuss any topic which comes up in class.

"I know there are some people who thought they could pacify certain groups by passing this program and then allowing discussions to include the subjects which some of us find objectionable," Sickels says. "But I would prefer not to believe the committee was duped."

Nevertheless, Sickels is urging members of his group to speak at the public hearing and urge the school board to limit class discussions to approved topics.

Kennedy, on the other hand, is a strong supporter of open discussions.

"I hope they're not successful (in blocking open discussions) although I'm sure they'll be very skillful in their attempts," Kennedy says.

The public hearing on the proposed expansion of the sex education program is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, May 7 at Luther Jackson Intermediate School, 3020 Gallows Rd. The board is scheduled to make a final decision on the program at its meeting May 14.