LAST DEC. 2, a 14-year-old boy at Cedar Knoll, one of the city's detention centers for juveniles, yelled through his locked door that he had sharp stomach pains. The boy was crying as he asked to see a nurse or doctor, according to the counselor on duty, but the counselor told him to wait until the morning. The boy complained two more times that the pain was so bad he could no longer walk. After consulting another official, the counselor again told the boy to wait. The next day, after 10 hours of pain and crying, he was found to have a ruptured appendix and was rushed to emergency surgery.

That incident is one of several in the past few months that indicate the tense, distrustful, often openly combative relationship between some of the tough youngsters being held in the city's detention centers and the adults charged with their care. While the appendicitis case reveals negligence, more often there are cases of physical violence. In one recent incident, a youngster wsa manacled and handcuffed to a bed frame for over two hours for fighting with another youngster. And earlier this month, a handcuffed youngster and a counselor had words after the counselor pushed the teen-ager. The young man told his guard that he would not have dared to push him if he had not been handcuffed. So while three other adult counselors watched, the counselor escorting the youth took the handcuffs off and began to fight with the boy. The youngster suffered injuries that left him in the hospital for four days. The counselor had his nose broken.

The children's centers are filled with this city's young criminals, often disturbed and violent people. These youngsters, typically dropouts who can barely read, are difficult to handle under any circumstances. But currently the task is all the more difficult: Instead of the proper ratio of 10 youths to 1 adult, the centers are run with a 20-to-1 ratio. The situation is exacerbated by unused vocational facilities at the centers closed for want of money; by school classes often not held because teachers do not want to deal with "bad" kids; and by the slowness with which the courts process juvenile cases.

The detention centers were not built to be waste bins for teen-agers who get into trouble. They were meant to help troubled young people change for the better. But how is that possible in conditions that breed violence and indifference to human suffering? Despite attempts by the courts to mandate just treatment of young people at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, those places attest to this supposedly civilized city's ability to avert its eyes.