Civil rights activists yesterday urged Maryland education officials to adopt a policy promising protection from harassment to homosexual students in public schools.

In an emotional public hearing, activists decried a vaguer proposal by the state Board of Education to simply ban all forms of harassment, arguing that schools won't act to stop anti-gay harassment unless the state specifically prohibits it.

"If you don't have the guts to put the words 'sexual orientation' in there, we don't believe you'll have the guts to protect us," said Beth Hagner, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

It is the second round of controversy for a once seemingly minor proposal, which the board is scheduled to vote on today. Some conservative groups attacked an earlier draft because it spelled out protection for gay students, among other groups, calling it a wedge to promote a wider discussion of homosexuality in schools.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick withdrew the old proposal this summer in favor of one simply guaranteeing a safe, harassment-free environment for "all students."

State board President Walter Sondheim Jr. said yesterday that the board did not believe it was necessary to "single out" specific categories of students for protection, but to condemn all forms of intolerance.

However, the new proposal is under attack by gay rights activists who complained yesterday that the state was abandoning homosexual students who are subjected to assault and teasing by their classmates.

"We are always the target, always the ones outside, always afraid," said Cathy Breslau, a senior at Rockville High School who said her car was vandalized because she is gay.

Education officials insist that neither version of the anti-harassment proposal would force schools to do anything they're not already doing.

The proposal would not require schools to teach about homosexuality, they say. Nor would it impinge upon hiring or staffing decisions, but simply formalize the schools' existing legal responsibilities.

The idea for the regulation stemmed from the work of a state task force devoted to multicultural education. Though the group first focused on the problem of lagging grades and test scores among minority students, it turned its attention to school safety after the Columbine shootings raised questions about cliquishness and bullying in the nation's schools.

Several Maryland school systems already have such anti-harassment policies on the books, including those in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties.

Conservative activists showed up at yesterday's meeting as well, asking state officials not to restore the "sexual orientation" clause to the policy.

Doug Stiegler, director of Family Protection Lobby, a conservative Carroll County group, said a policy promising protection to gay students would trigger lawsuits from gay rights groups that would force teachers to teach about homosexuality and schools to fund gay student clubs.

"It is forwarding the radical homosexual agenda," argued Robert F. Tansey, of Frederick, who spoke out against the original proposal.

CAPTION: State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick revised the proposed anti-harassment policy to remove mention of sexual orientation.