Sixteen high school algebra students have been suspended for two to five days for allegedly participating in what school officials call "a mass cheating conspiracy" involving a home computer and answer sheets reduced to the size of easily concealable business cards.

Officials at Middletown High School, near Frederick, said they suspended the 10th-and 11th-graders last week after discovering that a question sheet for the final algebra exam had been stolen. The answers had been calculated, plugged into a home computer and copies of the computer printout passed out to several students, according to the principal, Charles G. Clark.

Parents of five of the students have protested the suspensions and have called for an emergency school board meeting to discuss what some parents called "Gestapo-like" interrogations that resulted in the suspensions.

The scam, which has caused an end-of-the-school-year uproar, was discovered a week before the final exam was to be administered. The algebra teacher noticed one of the question sheets was missing from her desk after the exam had been administered early to graduating seniors.

The teacher, according to Clark, only became suspicious about the whereabouts of the missing exam a week later when a student told her about the indiscriminate distribution of the answer sheets. An internal investigation ensued, causing a domino-like disclosure of the students who were alleged to have received the answers.

In a letter mailed Saturday to the county school board, the parents charge:

"To our knowledge, the two assistant principals who have indiscriminately accused, interrogated, brow-beaten and pitted student against student in their Gestapo-like methods to obtain confessions to allegations totally without foundation are ill-equipped to even attempt to process and adjudicate matters better left to professional law enforcement officials."

"The schools should be respected, and any time rules are violated then those persons should be punished," said Ron Naso, an area director in the school system.

Many parents of the accused students do not deny that their children received the answer sheets, but they argue that they did not use them, and some were unaware of what the sheets were. Junior Vicki Bruce, whose initial suspension for three days was later lifted, said she was brought into the principal's office and accused of "receiving stolen property" and being involved in a "cheating conspiracy." Bruce said she was given the answer sheet during an algebra class last week and thought it was a party invitation. She said she threw it out.

"They told me I was guilty of something I never did," said Bruce today, a B+ student. "When I came home I cried because I have never been suspended in my life before nor have I ever done anything wrong before." School officials decided to lift Bruce's suspension and allowed her to take the algebra exam today after it was discovered that Bruce in fact did not know what the card was.

Other parents argue that the penalties, suspensions and failing marks on the exam were unduly harsh.

"Certainly, if they had taken the information and used it for cheating I would have been one hundred percent behind the school," said Janice Oberhaus, whose son was suspended for two days after he admitted to having received a copy of the answers. "But I think the school over-reacted. Unless there is some kind of honor code which the kids signed which said they would report cheating, I think it's unfair. It places a terrible burden on the children."

School officials, however, defended the punishment and said that an internal investigation supported the procedures followed by the school as proper. School officials further said that students who are aware of cheating are as culpable as those who actually attempt to cheat and that the students should have notified their teacher.

Other parents complained that the punishment of the senior who stole the exam and gave it to a friend to solve was less severe than that of their children. School officials said the student had already graduated and passed the algebra exam by the time the cheating scam was discovered. School officials said the student's diploma would not be revoked, but some unspecified action would be taken. The senior was not at home today, his parents said.