Many students at Forestville High School, still mourning the drug-related death of football star Rico Marshall, expressed outrage yesterday at the suspension of their football coach for omitting a drug-related conviction from his job application.

"America is supposed to be a place that gives people a chance to change," said Sherrita Mathews, 16, a junior. "They shouldn't go back in the past. {The coach} has helped more people than he hurt."

The suspension of coach Eric Knight for not listing on a 1975 application his conviction for conspiring to possess drugs in 1974 while he was a University of Maryland student came less than two weeks after Marshall's cocaine-overdose death.

It is the latest in a series of setbacks that Forestville has faced since it was created six years ago in buildings formerly used by Spaulding Junior High and Forestville Elementary schools.

In its first two years, the school had drug problems so severe that officials were forced to place hidden cameras in hallways and show the photos to parents to gather support. The crackdown led to the arrest of 27 students.

Last year, 17-year-old Dwayne Satterwhite, a Forestville student, was shot to death in front of the school in an attempted robbery.

Some of the school's problems stem from its location, in Forestville. It was not chosen as a site of a magnet school, with all of the money and programs such a designation entails.

Because the 93 percent black school was considered difficult to integrate, it has received about $60,000 in additional funds from the school board in the last three years. The money was used for extra teachers, new textbooks and funding for Project Success, a program for students who are often absent, suspended or considered underachievers.

The 1,128-student school also is working to compete with other county schools in achievement. Its standardized test scores, while rising, still lag behind countywide averages.

Its discipline problems continue: 26.7 percent of its student body was suspended last year for violating school rules. Only four of the county's 19 other high schools had higher suspension rates.

And the school still suffers from the merger that created it. It has no auditorium, so assemblies are held in the cafeteria.

Paulette Glascoe, a 17-year-old junior, said of the latest incident: "This is a small school. This is the last thing we need."

In school hallways yesterday, homemade signs advertised the latest trauma: "Don't Let Our Dream Die, Give us The Coach Back" and "Why let a good thing go to waste."

Students canceled an afternoon protest rally at the request of Principal Paul Lewis. Instead, when they saw television cameras, students leaned out bus windows at day's end, shouting "We want Coach Knight."

Students agreed that the negative publicity about the school would hurt their efforts at improvement. "It's going to make us work harder to do better," said Greg Drummond, a senior and football player.

He said students signed petitions to the school board yesterday requesting the coach's return.

Yesterday morning, students gathered for a morning assembly that had been scheduled to commemorate Black History Month. In his closing remarks, Lewis felt compelled, he said, to console students.

"The events of the last two weeks are having a catastrophic effect on us," he told them. "Two weeks ago, Forestville was Camelot. We had three kids signing" letters of intent for scholarships to play football.

"If you use drugs, if you hang with friends that use drugs, you are supporting a sin and a cancer, you are responsible for the death and ruin of Rico and every Rico to follow," he said.

School officials, who have not decided Knight's future, said yesterday that routine background checks have been made on all potential public school employees in the state since a General Assembly mandate 1 1/2 years ago.

Staff writer Retha Hill contributed to this report.