Prince George's County schools, which maintain the strictest discipline policy in the Washington area, expelled 196 students during the 1984-85 school year, mostly for bringing weapons on campus, according to figures released by school officials yesterday.

The number was up by 17 over the 1983-84 year, when 179 students were expelled. The previous year, 174 were expelled. The school system, the second largest in the area, enrolls 105,000 students.

"The numbers show we're not going to tolerate . . . having kids make schools unsafe," said Superintendent John A. Murphy. "If some have to pay the price of expulsion, so be it."

The policy, which calls for mandatory expulsion of students found with a weapon or distributing drugs on campus, has drawn some criticism by parents and others who feel it is too harsh. Other jurisdictions in the area expel only a handful of students a year; Montgomery County, for example, expelled three students last year.

But Prince George's teachers and school officials generally voiced support for the policy. "I feel more adamant about it today than I did [when the expulsion policy was adopted three years ago]," said Board of Education Chairman Angelo Castelli.

"The policy is there to protect those kids who want to learn."

Castelli said about a dozen expulsions were appealed to the board in 1984-85, but only one was overturned. That case involved a student who had brought a gun without a firing pin to school.

Although expulsions can be further appealed to the courts, none of the board's decisions has been overturned, a school spokesman said.

School officials do not track the whereabouts of students who are expelled. Beverly Vayhinger, supervisor of a county drug center in Clinton, where many of the expelled students are sent for counseling, said some apply to schools elsewhere but many stay home.

"I would be supportive of a policy that had some flexibility in it," she said. "Putting them out of school is not the best alternative."

Of the expulsions, including the one later overturned, 143 were for possession of a weapon; 42 for drugs; three for alcohol; four for attacks on other students or teachers; four for inciting others to violence, and one for arson.

"Some people have criticized us for a Draconian policy," said school spokesman Brian J. Porter. "But if these are the numbers with the policy, what would they be like without it?"

The increase in expulsions over previous years, he said, may represent stepped-up enforcement by principals rather than more violations by students.

Students who are expelled must stay out of school for the remainder of that semester and the following semester. They can reapply for admission, but students expelled for drugs or alcohol must complete a rehabilitation program.

Murphy, who recommended but did not receive funding for an alternative high school this year, said he would prefer that students charged with drug offenses not be expelled.