Prince George's County schools suspended students last year at twice the rate of the area's other largest school districts, issuing more than 17,000 suspensions, 77 percent to black youngsters.

Superintendent John A. Murphy, calling the figures "excessively high," outlined plans yesterday designed to keep more youngsters in school. But he said he would not relax a discipline policy that has been called one of the toughest in the nation.

"I don't expect the principals to lessen the standards in their schools," Murphy said in an interview. "The point is . . . we're going to take a look at why students misbehave."

During the last school year, officials issued 17,122 suspensions to 10,248 students, according to a report formally presented to the Board of Education last night. In the report, Murphy proposed creating in-school suspension centers and expanding a successful program for low achievers as ways of reducing suspensions and discipline problems.

The report also called for setting up a citizens committee to monitor student suspensions, headed by Prince George's County State's Attorney Alex Williams.

School officials have been under increasing pressure from black leaders in the county to address the discipline policy, which has consistently resulted in about 10,000 students being sent home in each of the last four years.

While black students accounted for 61 percent of the county's 102,500 students last year, they received more than three-fourths of all suspensions.

Richard (Steve) Brown, executive director of the county branch of the NAACP, called the figures "absolutely unacceptable."

"It's a sad indictment on the superintendent of schools and the Board of Education," Brown said

Prince George's school officials have spent millions of dollars on a court-ordered desegregation plan, Brown said, but "they can't find ways and means to keep our black youngsters in school."

The Prince George's study found that black males were suspended most frequently, a statistic some prominent blacks have said could be eased with the hiring of more black administrators.

Murphy said yesterday that his findings show no pattern of racial bias, noting that black principals suspend black youths at rates similar to white administrators.

Still, he said, "We want to look at every school and ask people to look at themselves." Murphy said he wanted to ensure that principals were applying discipline policies uniformly.

In Fairfax, the area's largest school system with 128,000 students, 6,722 students were suspended a total of 12,322 times last year.

During the same period, District officials suspended 699 of their approximately 86,000 students.

However, many minor suspensions handled by principals go unreported to the district office, officials said.

Montgomery County introduced an in-school suspension program last year in which students are assigned to special classes rather than put out of school. As a result, the number of suspensions fell slightly. School spokesman Bill Henry said 2,478 students were sent home from Montgomery County schools last year, 203 fewer than the year before.

Prince George's officials said suspensions, which declined slightly last year but have been stable for at least four years, reflect a tough, systemwide discipline code that allows principals to remove students from the classroom for such things as disrupting class, fighting and skipping school.

Students may be sent home for a period ranging from one day to one year.

The majority of Prince George's students were expelled for "insubordination," according to the report. School officials have not determined the average length of the suspensions.

The hallmark of the Prince George's discipline policy, and the reason it results in thousands of suspensions, is the strict enforcement and support given the policy by top administrators.

The code of discipline includes mandatory expulsion of students who bring weapons into school or distribute drugs there.

Since the policy was implemented five years ago, 836 students have been expelled from the area's second-largest school system.

The report released yesterday does not deal with issues concerning expulsions.

"We feel if students violate {the drugs and weapons policy} we can do nothing but expel them," Murphy said.

The District of Columbia opened an alternative school in January, a separate campus in a former elementary school where disruptive students are assigned for up to a semester.

Last night, as Prince George's board members praised the candor of the report on suspensions, they effectively killed the possibility of starting an alternative school in the county in the near future.

Board members cited a price tag that could run as high as $1 million.

Instead, members pledged support for Murphy's recommendation to expand Project Success, the in-school program that places underachievers in special classes. The program, which Murphy said could be modified to include in-school suspension centers for all students, is in six high schools.