And, in a year that has seen the crime of cross-burning reclassified from a misdemeanor to a felony and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes call for a battle against "the hatemongers," the Montgomery County schools have come up with a plan designed to attack hate-group activities -- by telling the "true story" in classrooms.

"The most important things we can do are educating about what these groups are and represent, and making our administrative personnel understand that these incidents aren't minor, they are very serious," said Montgomery School Superintendent Edward Andrews. "More people are saying it's a serious problem and time to get tough about it."

In one incident this year, four white juveniles and an adult riding in a car allegedly sprayed caustic foam from a fire extinguisher on blacks as they walked in a section of Wheaton. In other reported incidents, two brothers, ages 14 and 15, placed a burning cross on the lawn of a black family in Wheaton, and a group of juveniles duplicated the act in Poolesville earlier this year, said police.

"In some of the cases where we have made arrests or closed investigations, it's been shown that a significant number of these people are of school age," said Montgomery Police Chief Bernard Crooke. "A lot of young people don't realize the implication of their acts. With proper education in the schools" the number of such incidents may decrease, he said.

The school plan, at least in theory, is relatively simple. It is designed to avoid placing too much emphasis on the Ku Klux Klan, neo-nazis and other extremist groups. According to Richard Wilson, coordinator of social studies for the Montgomery schools, instructors have been told to focus more attention on the specific time periods when hate-group activities were most prevalent: during Reconstruction, the 1920s, World War II and during the civil rights years of the Fifties and Sixties.

"We are asking these teachers to look for places where they can focus on human relations . . . to spend a little more time on it . . . to show exactly what they hate groups stand for," said Wilson. "I don't know if you can change a confirmed bigot, but we can do a better job of swaying the fence straddlers."

It is difficult to assess the racial climate in the schools, but some administrators are concerned that students at times may not be aware of the effects of their actions or statements. One student, 16-year-old Troy Bishop of Paint Branch High School, said that "people make comments and try to be cute, but nobody pays any attention." When asked about what statements he has heard other students make, he answered, "Things like 'Don't get any Afro-Sheen on me,' but people just laugh it off."

"It's been quieting down recently. There used to be all-around racial prejudice," said Michael Jones, 16, a black student at Paint Branch. He added that "it's coming back again."

"It's not as bad a situation as critics make it out to be, but not as good as it could be," said Jonathan Lipson, 17, of Walt Whitman High School, who serves as the student representative to the county school board.

The new emphasis on tolerance instruction began last summer, Wilson said, in an "awareness session" involving County Executive Charles Gilchrist and community leaders, during which they discussed the increasing numbers of incidents directed against Jews, blacks and Hispanics and vandalism of school and religious structures.

Results of the session were reported to Andrews, who consulted his English and social studies coordinators and other officials to map out a plan for the school system.

Just before the current school year began, department heads and educational specialists from each of the county's public schools attended a special session to view a film on Klan Youth Corps recruitment and to hear talks about local and national hate groups and racially and religiously motivated incidents.

This month, similar sessions are planned for public school principals and their student body presidents. The centerpiece of the training is a 71-page document entitled "Violence, the Ku Klux Klan and the Struggle for Equality," produced this year by the Connecticut Education Association and the National Education Association, and published by The Council on Interracial Books for Children.

"What we have found is that extremist groups have flourished the most where they are not subject to scrutiny," said Willard McGuire, president of the Washington-based NEA. "We wanted discussion materials to show the outcome of hate and bigotry and their effects on society."

The booklet, unveiled at a workshop last week in Hartford, Conn., offers suggestions for classroom methods, a history of the Klan "as the enemy of democratic ideals," newspaper articles and excerpts from the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, John F. Kennedy and Frederick Douglass.

"The purpose of this publication is to provide teachers with the truth about the Ku Klux Klan and to make available instructional procedures and resources for bringing this truth to light in the classroom," says a preface to the document.

Montgomery County is not the only Maryland jurisdiction concerned about increases in hate-group incidents. In the Baltimore City schools recently, 45,000 students in 57 junior and senior high schools were given two days of concentrated instruction on "The Ku Klux Klan -- Its Ideology of Hate and Violence."

A Klan leader in Baltimore County recently was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiring to bomb the local NAACP offices, and the Klan has distributed its literature to students from the Baltimore City schools, according to Dr. Samuel Banks, director of social studies for the Baltimore schools.

"The thing we wanted to do was to point out that the Klan is a clear and present danger to Baltimore, the state and the nation," said Banks. "People must understand and mobilize against such irrational groups. . . . It was my view that we had to focus on the threat to our students. It was a propitious time to begin."

Andrews and other school officials say they have no evidence that the Klan has either recruited students or distributed literature to them, but "kids go around painting 'KKK' or swastikas on walls without even knowing what this means to people," said Wilson.

According to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High instructor Bonnie Cochran, the new instructional materials have stimulated some interesting discussions. Said Cochran, "A lot of the kids brought up examples of racism. Others said 'Don't use past tense. These things are still happening.' "