Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane said yesterday the use of anabolic steroids by high school athletes in the county is a growing problem, and initiated efforts to educate coaches, trainers, students and parents about the dangers of the drugs.

In a memo distributed to School Board members, Spillane said that since the beginning of the school year coaches, physicians and others have become increasingly concerned over the use of steroids, which some athletes take to increase their muscle bulk and strength.

The memo said an investigation produced these conclusions: "Steroids are easily acquired without a prescription, particularly at health clubs." "There is ample evidence . . . students are experimenting with steroids, although {this} is very difficult to prove . . . . " "There is no evidence that coaches have encouraged or sanctioned steroid use." "Legal penalties are too low to deter the use of steroids."

The memo said those conclusions were similar to one reached in a recent series of articles in The Fairfax Journal newspaper.

Reached last night at a School Board meeting, Spillane said of steroid use: "We don't think it is out of control, but we know it's available." He said he could not guess how many students might be using steroids.

Bill Savage, the school system's coordinator of athletics, said he knew of no specific instances of steroid abuse among students, but had heard rumors.

Savage said symptoms of steroid abuse include quick gain of muscle bulk -- "going from 200 pounds to 220 quickly -- quicker than you would expect . . . in a regular weight-training program." Athletes using steroids often exhibit increased aggression, he added, and suffer swelling of the feet and lower legs, as well as purple and red skin blotches.

Some research shows that steroids can have long-term side effects such as kidney and liver malfunction, hypertension, impotence in men and menstrual irregularity in women.

On Friday, Spillane plans to meet with coaches, trainers and student activity directors to warn against the use of steroids.

His memo said he will declare that steroid use "will not be tolerated" in school athletic programs.

"Students who use, distribute or sell steroids will be subject to penalties" provided for in school regulations against drug abuse, possibly including expulsion.

In addition, the memo said that "coaches or other school employees who encourage or tolerate the use of steroids will be disciplined."

A bill introduced in the Virginia General Assembly this week by Del. Kenneth Plum (D-Fairfax) would increase the maximum penalty for selling anabolic steroids to minors from a fine of $100 to $1,000 and a year in jail.

Plum also requested that an investigation into steroid use be conducted by the state Health Regulatory Board.