The District government, in violation of federal law, has failed to provide special education classes for hundreds of learning disabled or emotionally disturbed juveniles being held at the city's juvenile detention centers, according to a yearlong investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The detention facilities do not provide special education classes, although GAO estimated that 46 percent of the juveniles -- some 595 out of 1,297 delinquents at detention facilities in 1983 -- needed them.

"City officials for years have been turning their backs on these kids," said Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.), ranking minority member of the House District Committee, who requested the investigation. "It frightens me to think that the city for 20 years has not complied with special education laws. I shudder to think of how many young lives were destroyed over these 20 years by such a scandalous failure."

These juveniles were put in regular classes formed on the basis of their residential units rather than educational levels, and a class could have reading levels ranging from second to 11th grade, GAO said.

The city has three juvenile detention facilities, the Receiving Home on Mount Olivet Road NE, and Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll in suburban Maryland. But findings apply primarily to Oak Hill, because the city is in the process of closing Cedar Knoll and the Receiving Home has a small population.

Of the 595 juveniles GAO found with education handicaps, only 223 had been identified and given the individualized education program required under federal law.

And of the individualized programs that had been developed, about 73 percent did not comply with federal requirements, the agency said.

At a congressional hearing yesterday on the report, McKinney also revealed allegations that youngsters at the city's facilities are being physically abused but that individuals with information about the abuse do not know what to do.

"It's hard to believe, but there are a half-dozen police and prosecutorial agencies with some authority over the juvenile detention centers but none seems interested in protecting the rights of the children confined there," he said.

Officials from the city's school system and the D.C. Department of Human Services, which oversees the juvenile detention facilities, said at the hearing that they already are working toward improving the education the juveniles receive.

The GAO faulted the D.C. Board of Education for not monitoring the education of the juveniles and recommended that school officials do timely testing of the delinquents and produce special education plans for those needing them.

"We will more diligently carry out those responsibilities" under the federal law, School Superintendent Floretta McKenzie told the subcommittee.

David Rivers, director of the city's Department of Human Services, which runs the detention facilities, said the Receiving Home has an interim instructional placement that meets federal standards and that Oak Hill will soon achieve the same quality.

The report also found that as of April 1985, 10 of the 14 teachers at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll were not certified by the Board of Education to teach any subject, and none was certified to teach special education.

D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, chairman of the subcommittee that held yesterday's hearing, said he wants the city to submit a written plan for implementing the special education program at its detention facilities and that a follow-up hearing will be held.