The Frederick County Board of Education has decided to halt sending congratulatory letters to African Americans who make the honor roll--the only group of students who have received them.

"I don't like the idea of making any decisions based on race. I think we need to get away from these distinctions," said Ronald Peppe II, president of the Board of Education, who first questioned the practice in May.

"African American parents came to us and said they felt it implied their children were less capable, or underprivileged, and they took offense," Peppe said yesterday. A larger number of complaints "came from the parents of regular kids and [children] with various disabilities saying, 'What about my child? That's not fair.' "

The issue has been the latest flash point in the increasingly heated dialogue over the treatment of minorities in Frederick schools as development spreading from Baltimore and Washington increases diversity in this rural jurisdiction northwest of Montgomery County.

"Let's look at the substantive issues, the reasons why this practice was deemed necessary in the first place," said Willie Mahone, a member of the Parents Association for African-American Students and a longtime critic of county schools.

The practice of sending the letters was initiated 10 years ago by a former board member, Earl Robbins. Peppe said he learned in May that a current board member, Earline Thornton, was continuing the tradition, and he argued that the policy should have been reviewed by the board. Thornton and Robbins are both African American; Peppe is white.

About 300 to 400 African American honor students from county middle and high schools have been receiving the letters each year, according to Judith Ricketts, executive assistant to the board.

Ricketts did not have the racial breakdown for this year's incoming student body of 36,251 but said last year's student population was 12.2 percent minority students--8.45 percent African American.

Without a formal vote, the board decided Wednesday to end the practice and direct the superintendent to explore other ways of rewarding and encouraging academic achievement.

Mahone said school officials have not done enough to integrate minority students into honors classes and extracurricular groups, failed to hire enough minority teachers and been too tolerant of racially offensive behavior and remarks.

"We do a very good job in a community like this that is just beginning to be more diverse after years of being homogenous. We have zero tolerance for name-calling and other harassment," Peppe responded. "Sure, we have problems, but we are working on them and making progress."