The Howard County Board of Education tonight is expected to amend its anti-discrimination policy to specifically protect gay students from harassment -- by teachers as well as other students.

Advocates for gay boys and girls said it would be one of the few such school policies in this region.

Howard County prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the school board is simply bringing its policies into compliance, said Kathleen Griffith, human relations specialist for the school system.

The board policy, which already covers race, creed, gender and a wide range of characteristics, would be amended to direct principals to reprimand those who "offend or degrade students or staff."

Homophobic behavior by students or staff -- including name calling -- "will be considered misconduct" that could result in a written reprimand, suspension or ouster from the school system, the proposed Howard policy states.

Though parents of gay students testified before the school board recently that their children have been made to feel isolated and ignored, school officials said no such problems have been brought to their attention.

"When a student is put down, he's probably not even willing to admit that he's gay," said Charles Scott, the student representative on the Howard County school board and a senior at Wilde Lake High School.

"I was surprised when they said that one out of every 10 students was homosexual, because I don't know of any that are in high school," Scott said. He said the issue of sexuality is "basically not addressed" in high school health and biology courses, "but maybe it should be addressed more" in light of the estimated number of students "who must be having to deal with these feelings."

A federal task force on youth suicide reported last year that gay teenagers are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide and that an estimated one-fourth of all young gay males are forced to leave home because of conflicts involving their sexual orientation.

"Help for those adolescents needs to derive from all levels of a society that stigmatizes and discriminates against gays and lesbians," the task force concluded. ". . . Schools can protect gay youth from abuse from their peers and provide accurate information about homosexuality in health curricula . . . . "

"What all {gay} kids go through is a terrible sense of having no worth," said a woman whose gay son graduated from the Howard schools more than a decade ago. "Not being able to develop self worth is one of the hardest things, because of all the gay jokes and all the derogatory comments. 'Kill the fags' is one that is typical today because of AIDS.

"Young people are very confused to begin with when they are discovering their sexual feelings," said the woman, who is active in the Howard chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

"They have no references at all, because in general, teachers aren't very current with knowledge about sexual development today . . . . We're trying to make teachers aware of how much help these kids need," she added.

Howard and other counties in the region have taken tentative steps in recent years toward including information about sexual orientation in family life courses and in instruction about the transmission of AIDS.

For the most part, however, homosexuality is a hidden issue in secondary schools, where peer pressure is strong.

The majority of gay and lesbian teenagers wait until they leave home or enter the more supportive environment of college to declare their sexual orientation, said Laurie Coburn, coordinator of the Parents and Friends organization's national office in Washington.