A Metro article yesterday incorrectly identified the president of Northwestern High School's parents' organization. Mark McElreath is the president. (Published 9/16/87)

Five minutes after the tardy bell rang, administrators at Northwestern High School swept down the sprawling school wings and rounded up students still in the hallways to check for passes.

The hall sweep two weeks ago, the first of the new school year, was only a warning.

Last year, when such dragnets were ordered up to three times a week at the school in Hyattsville, students found loitering in the halls were sent home for a full day. In large measure because of the hall sweeps, more than one-fourth of the student body got at least one suspension during the school year.

While such suspensions are a tradition in public education, their use has come under new scrutiny, particularly as they affect black students. Increasingly, critics are questioning whether suspensions are the best way to deal with truants and disruptive students.

The hall sweeps at Northwestern are part of a discipline plan designed to keep students in class and hallways quiet.

But last year, the practice resulted in a suspension rate that was among the highest in Prince George's County, where overall suspension rates have been called excessively high.

Last week, school officials released figures showing that the county last year suspended students at a rate twice as high as the area's other large school systems. More than 17,000 suspensions were issued to 10,248 pupils, 77 percent of them black.

For their part, Northwestern's six administrators issued 1,086 suspensions, sending home 585 students, 28 percent of the school's enrollment. Some of the youngsters were sent out of school more than once.

"There were a lot of students in the hall {in previous years}," said Principal Luther Fennell. "That is something we're turning around."

In Prince George's, the majority of suspensions issued last year were for insubordination, disrespectful behavior and cutting class.

The logic of punishing youngsters already disenchanted with school by putting them out is lost on some of Northwestern's students. "It's stupid," senior Alita Lyon said yesterday. "They want people to stay in school but then they put them out."

The hall sweeps have at times been bent to serve students' desires. "Sometimes kids just walk through the hallway trying to get suspended," said a student who asked not to be identified. "Nobody wants to come to school Friday anyway."

But other students say the hall sweeps have spurred them to get to class on time and have made them think twice about cutting. Others said the practice has had an impact on other problems that plague many large high schools. "People roaming the halls, drug dealing, that's when all the fights start," said Krista Story, a junior. "I think it needs to be stricter."

Despite an outcry from parents last year, Fennell said he will continue to order hall sweeps at Northwestern as part of the discretion given principals, but he plans to concentrate on chronic violators of antiloitering rules.

Also, the school has organized teams of counselors and administrators to work with parents and students on why they do not, or will not, go to class.

Northwestern, which is among the largest high schools in the county, draws a mix of more than 2,000 youngsters from Hyattsville, Landover, University Park and Riverdale. While 60 percent of the students are black, 71 percent of those suspended are black, a pattern that has been repeated throughout the county.

The Prince George's study found no pattern of racial bias, however, noting that black principals suspend black youths at rates similar to white administrators.

Still, many agree cultural differences exist and should be examined.

At the same time, some prominent blacks in the county are calling for the hiring of more black administrators to serve as role models in the schools.

Of the six administrators who make the ultimate decisions at Northwestern on whether to suspend a student, two are black.

Magoline Ramsey Corney, president of Northwestern's parents organization and a former principal in the District, said cultural misunderstandings and apprehension between the races sometimes are resolved by punishing the student.

Corney described parents as "very, very upset" by the suspension rate last year at Northwestern.

Under pressure to address the impact of the suspensions, particularly on black students, Superintendent John A. Murphy has proposed new programs designed to keep students in school.

But he and the Board of Education have maintained that the discipline policy, one of the strictest in the nation, will go unchanged.

"I don't expect the principals to lessen the standards in their schools," Murphy said last week.

The hall sweeps, a practice not used in all schools, seem to be working. At Northwestern, within walking distance of Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville, few students are seen in the hallways during class time; on two warm days recently, it was hard to find students loitering outside the building.

Students have been spending time learning the rules. On Friday, Vice Principal Dennis Curry wound up his 12th lecture on the school and county discipline policy, telling a class of seniors that they must set the example for underclassmen.

Yesterday, all students were given a 50-question, true-or-false test on the rules.

"Ignorance of the rules is no excuse," Curry said.