It was a seemingly minor proposal, slipped into public record with little fanfare this summer.

But a proposed policy now coming before the Maryland state Board of Education to promise all students protection from harassment--including gay and lesbian students--is generating outrage and controversy in some conservative circles.

Conservatives criticize the policy for singling out specific groups of students to protect from harassment, and some complain that it could open the door to a wider discussion of gay lifestyles in schools. State education officials say critics are overreacting to an innocuous update of school regulations that will not create any new programs or affect most day-to-day affairs in public schools.

The proposal stems from the work of the state's Education That Is Multicultural task force, which most recently has focused on the problem of lagging grades and test scores among minority students. But in its most recent report, the group also turned its attention to how to guarantee "a safe school environment" to all children. The issue gained momentum after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado raised questions about cliquishness, bullying and alienation in the nation's schools.

The proposed resolution will be presented in a public hearing before the board late this month and will be voted on later in the fall.

It essentially promises schools that are "safe, optimal for academic achievement, and free from harassment" for all students in Maryland, "regardless of but not limited to race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic status, age, and disability."

A. Skipp Sanders, the deputy state superintendent of schools, said the proposal wouldn't force schools to do anything that they're not already doing. "Putting it on the books in policy just makes it official," he said. "It makes it legally part of the schools' responsibility."

Four Maryland school systems already have similar anti-harassment policies on the books, including Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties.

But two key words in the middle of the proposed regulation--"sexual orientation"--were what sparked controversy in Maryland. Last spring, a debate over gay rights enveloped the final days of the state legislative session, as a Senate committee blocked a bill supported by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to ban housing and employment discrimination against gays.

State education officials said they received dozens of angry phone calls and letters about the proposal. Many people, they claim, were simply misinformed about the policy's intent.

The policy, they say, will not require schools to teach about homosexuality. Nor will it impinge upon hiring and staffing decisions.

"People often confuse something like this with us trying to dictate to local systems to do stuff with their curricula," Sanders said. "We're not doing that."

But state Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford), who reported receiving several dozen phone calls from constituents complaining about the policy, says it would undercut teachers' authority to scold students who are showing off sexually--homosexual or heterosexual.

"When we had students in the hall who were having public displays of affection, we could say to them, 'Hey guys, cool it,' " said Jacobs, a former teacher. "If we provide special protections to a specific group of people, there goes your excuse--whether they're gay or straight.

"You're going to have teachers who are afraid to say anything to kids for fear of getting hit with a lawsuit."

State education officials say that the policy is not aimed at protecting such exhibitionist behavior but rather at helping students who may be struggling with their sexuality and are being bullied or taunted by their peers.

A 1994 survey of Montgomery County students found a general belief that the students at greatest risk of being harassed were those who admitted to or were suspected of being gay, Sanders said.

But Jacobs remains unconvinced. "Don't we already have rules on the book about assaults in public schools, regardless of sexual orientation?" she asked.

She notes that the proposed policy does not prohibit teasing of children who are obese or very tall. "Once you start classifying people and listing them, you're leaving somebody out."

Doug Stiegler, executive director of the Family Protection Lobby, which has been rallying opposition to the policy from its base in Carroll County, agrees.

"The word 'all students' is what is needed," he said. "Teach them respect and responsibility, let's not get into the fight of who is in what category."

He suggests that the proponents of the policy change have a deeper "agenda" to force staffing quotas on the basis of sexual orientation or to require teaching about homosexuality in schools.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick denies it. "This has nothing to do with instruction," she said. "This is about nondiscrimination."

Grasmick said that her agency is "not wedded to any specific language" and may be open to suggestions on crafting a more inclusive policy.

Still, Matt Coles, director of the lesbian and gay rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that such a policy does need to specify that harassment of homosexuals will not be tolerated.

"A lot of people don't recognize harassment when it happens," he said. "You'll hear people saying, 'Oh, boys will be boys.'

"School districts are realizing that if they let gay kids get harassed, they can get sued, and they can lose," he added. "They have to make it clear to all the staff that you really can't do it."