He was hyperactive, not a bad kid but the kind of student who eats one candy bar too many and just can't sit still.

Spotted early last year by administrators at Rockville's Richard Montgomery High School, he was identified as the sort of student who starts out with a discipline problem, then begins skipping classes and often ends up on the suspension rolls. "He was a very rambunctious little child," one teacher recalled.

And so the counselor in charge of the mentor program took pains to introduce him to another newcomer, history teacher Rebecca Blauser, who would offer him a shoulder to cry on during that tough first year in high school. The boy stayed in school, as did most of the 70 to 100 students offered similar assistance.

"Mentoring" is one of a number of strategies Montgomery's school administrators credit with trimming the ranks of students who have to be temporarily suspended from secondary schools each year. Suspensions are a problem that the school system began to attack systematically several years ago, when nearly 7 percent of students were tossed out of school for infractions ranging from tardiness to extortion.

The result is that last year, the number of those students dropped to 2,190, or about 5 percent, Superintendent Harry Pitt reported last week. Yet the suspensions continue to worry administrators and civil rights leaders, especially because a high percentage of the youths sent home are black.

Counselors at Richard Montgomery, which started one of the county's first mentoring programs two years ago, told the new ninth grader that he should feel free to talk to Blauser about his troubles.

During the course of the year, Blauser spent time with him in and out of school, taking him to Harlem Globetrotters games and other events that interested them. They talked often about his need to take control over his actions and emotions.

Because she kept in touch with his teachers, "he knew I was checking up on him," the history teacher said.

Last year, Richard Montgomery's principal suspended 17 students, or 1.4 percent of the enrollment. Four years earlier, 8.3 percent had been suspended.

Finding constructive alternatives to sending students home as punishment is what the county's suspension project is all about, county administrators said.

After all, points out James Robinson, head of a citizens review committee that has accused the school system of being quicker to suspend black students than others, "most of these young people need to be in class as much as they can be."

"We just don't use suspensions as a first resort," said Robert N. Humbles, principal of Richard Montgomery's only feeder school, Julius West Middle School. "A student has to behave rather miserably to be suspended."

Instead, the county schools have adopted several approaches, including mentoring, to aid problem students. At Richard Montgomery and elsewhere, selected students have been trained in the art of listening and act as peer counselors for kids with problems.

At some schools, the peer counselors have office hours or wear special T-shirts, and their pictures are displayed prominently on guidance office bulletin boards.

A system of "in-school" suspensions, a structured study hall that keeps unruly students under adult supervision and in a position to be counseled more intensely, also has been instituted, and last year was meted out to about 300 students.

Nonetheless, infractions involving weapons, violence and law-breaking can get a student booted out of school quickly, school administrators said.

Countywide, 34 percent of all students ordered to withdraw from school for infractions were black, compared with 30 percent the year before. Blacks make up just over 15 percent of the county's school population.

Although the number of suspended black students dropped, their growing share of disciplinary actions continues to trouble groups such as Robinson's.

Nationally, black students are believed to be suspended at about twice the rate of whites, said a spokesman for the Massachusetts-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

"It's a question which needs to be looked at," said Robinson, an administrator with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and father of three children who were educated in Montgomery County.

Isiah Leggett, the County Council's only black member, observed that the subjective judgments made about behavior may stack up against black students "if teachers and administrators are not particularly sensitive" to differences in culture and behavior patterns.

At Silver Spring's Montgomery Blair High School, attendance problems plague many of the school's suspended black students, said Principal Phillip F. Gainous, who is black. "Our focus is to get the kids to class," he said.

Black students sometimes think that it is "not cool to carry books . . . not cool to get to class on time," Gainous said. To help stem the problem, the school has launched an incentive program, offering as much as $100 for good attendance.

Fighting is no longer the main reason for black suspensions at Blair, as it was more than two years ago.

Countywide, nearly half the disciplined students last year were sent home for fighting, and most were male, school board reports indicate.

"A lot of what we're seeing is the result of what we see on TV," said Phillip Dean, principal of John T. Baker Intermediate School in Damascus, who suspended seven of his 20 black students last year and 35 of the 505 white students.

"When you see your baseball star jump out of the baseball dugout and run out and have a fisticuff with someone, or a verbal harangue with the umpire . . . maybe the message is coming across that that's the right way to do it," Dean said.

At Baker, as at other schools, counselors try to point youngsters to alternative ways of dealing with their anger.

But the goal, said Superintendent Pitt, "is not to ignore improper behavior."