THE RECENT rape of one 10-year-old child and the sexual assault on another -- both on the same day in District elementary schools -- defy characterization. What is one supposed to call it -- an "outrage"? But there are lesser squalors to which all this is related that need urgently to be dealt with by the schools. Loiterers, drug dealers and assorted troublemakers are in fact an everyday hallway affliction for some principals. Between students who cut classes, others visiting from neighboring schools, and non-students who wander in and out of the building, school officials have come commonly to complain that some school hallways are replicas of street corners. And it is a common irritation to teachers to see students distracted by the action in the hallway. Some schools have areas where students regularly get high on marijuana.

City Council member Willie Hardy met last week with the police chief and fire and school officials to see what can be done at least to make schools safe from intruders.School officials try to control who goes in and out of the doors, but it is a difficult and time-consuming task. One reason is 'the housing codes, which make doors (for fire exits) a requirement every few feet in a school building. Often it seems the schools have so many doors they might as well not have walls. The new Shaw Junior High School, for example, has about 100 doors. At some schools, principals have chained doors shut, sparking the anger of parents concerned about their children's safe in case of fire. But it may be possible to review the housing codes and arrange for fewer doors that are farther apart. Additional fire equipment or windows that push out in case of fire could permit a smaller number of doors.

Other proposals to make schools safer include having parents monitor halls and urging principals and teachers to file complaints against intruders. Once the complaints have been filed, the city's corporation counsel and the judges would have to recognize the seriousness of trespassing on school property and deal with violators swiftly and harshly. Another helpful step would be for schools to keep their own students from leaving during the day to go "hang out" at another school. This won't be easy. But it should be made clear to students -- possibly through stiff punishment, such as a short suspension -- that making unauthorized trips to other schools is a serious offense. Along those same lines, something also has to be done to clear a school's own loitering and troublemaking class-cutters from its halls. Typically, schools have an assistant principal walk through the building to make sure students are not hanging around. But the larger presence of several parents might help.

Strong action should be taken -- fast. For whatever citizens can or can't expect from the public schools, at a minimum they must be able to expect that their children will be safe from vicious assaults. Some things are not negotiable, and that is one of them.