WASHINGTON-AREA parents tell these stories:

On the evening that a jury returned its mixed verdict on D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, two teenaged boys were hanging out near Cardozo High School. One said, "If Barry can do drugs and get away with it, so can I. Barry is the father image of tomorrow."

"Aw man, c'mon. He is not," his friend replied.

A fistfight ensued; a mother tried to pull them apart. "You don't have to do what Barry does," she said to the boys, who continued to throw punches. Then the father stepped in: "I work hard every day," he said to the one who was his son. "Why don't you fight over what I'm doing?"

A young Northern Virginia man who served a drug sentence two years ago chided his father, who had forced his son to plead guilty. "I guess I should have hired {Barry lawyer} Ken Mundy," the youth said. "He could have gotten me off."

Midway through the trial, as witnesses came forth for the prosecution, several teenaged girls gathered for breakfast at a D.C. church. One complained that Barry's friends had "violated his trust." Another girl asked: "But didn't Barry violate the trust of the people?" A third said, "You know, you can't trust anyone these days."

The parents who relay these anecdotes -- and other adults who witnessed similar conversations -- are worried. As they begin to gain some perspective on the Barry ordeal, they are debating a question that transcends race, income and education: How do we raise moral children in a society whose leaders display immoral behavior?

Facing the aftershock of the trial, in which the D.C. mayor faced drug and perjury charges, they say hey want their children to be honest, to take responsibility for their actions, to care for and show respect for others. They want their children to see that when someone does something wrong, he shows remorse. They want their children to believe that when someone breaks the law, the legal system will render a fair judgment.

But during eight months of nonstop publicity, their children have seen something else.

They've seen a man who told young people to say no to drugs, but who privately said yes; a man who championed the family and habitually cheated on his wife; a man who never conceded that he used drugs even while his lawyer acknowledged that his client used cocaine. They've seen a trial in which the prosecution brought forth numerous sordid details about the defendant and then they've seen the defendant dancing in triumph, proclaiming victory and sayingthat he will stand for election again in the fall.

"I've tried to help my kids develop a formula for life," said Kent Amos, a District father and, for the past decade, a mentor to more than 60 youngsters. "But put that trial against the formula and nothing positive has come out."

Since the verdict came back, I've talked to more than two dozen people. Some live in Southeast Washington, some in Northwest, some in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Some hold white-collar jobs, some are blue-collar workers, still others work at home. None had professional ties to the mayor's office or any other branch of city government. And all, for the most part, were silent during the racially charged trial.

But that's changing. A handful have appeared on TV talk shows and talked to the mainstream press. One group of black professionals has met twice privately to discuss going public with their concerns. At Roosevelt High School, PTA members are considering a forum when school reconvenes to allow youngsters and parents the opportunity to speak out.

These men and women said the majority of adults in the metropolitan area share sound beliefs about right and wrong and usually act accordingly. But you wouldn't know it, they said, by watching the trial's main players, the egotism driving them and the debate over racism that clouded the moral wrongs on trial. The chief concern for parents, particularly black parents, was expressed by Betty Leftridge-Fields, president of Roosevelt High School's PTA: "I've talked to my neighbors, my daughter and her friends. They all say Mayor Barry presented a bad image to black children."

The role-model issue was inescapable. Marion Barry, after all, was a man who visited the city's schools regularly, preaching the evils of drugs; and he appeared at numerous city events with wife Effi and son Christopher, the very model of the family man. (Effi later told a Fox TV interviewer that the three had perhaps six family meals together during their 12-year-marriage.) University of Maryland child psychologist Michael Pressley says scientific studies support what most of us suspect: Children learn more from what a person does than from what he says.

"When my girls were 11, 12, 13, Barry came to their schools. I was bothered by the hypocrisy," said Doris Young, a mother and grandmother in Southeast who otherwise expressed sympathy for Barry.

Kent Amos was troubled by the reports of Barry's promiscuity and mentioned the women who showed up in court to give the lurid details. "What do our children having babies learn when they see that?" he asked.

A McLean father, who asked not to be identified, said, "My son is sexually active, and he sees Barry having all these affairs . . . . What do I tell him?"

The Rev. Rodney Young, a Baptist minister and interim director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, said he would like the press and other institutions to hold up positive images for children. He mentioned a recovering drug addict he knows who is now married and working at homeless shelters.

But Amos, citing a Parade magazine story on dancer Ben Vereen, also a recovering drug user, said he is weary of seeing adults who went wrong being held up as models. "Let's hold up decent people who go to work every day. There are all kinds of people who can be called heroes."

Barry is not the only one who's been taking some raps in the aftermath. One parent said his children could not understand why Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who condemns drug use, embraced Barry without castigating his behavior. Johnny Davis, a Navy worker from Southeast, said his children asked him why more city ministers didn't criticize Barry's drug use and extramarital affairs. Their relative silence, Davis said, suggested "that even the religious people were encouraging this kind of thing." To be sure, the more stable the environment of home and school, the less affected were the children. Andrea Vanderpool, a mother and child psychologist in private practice in Silver Spring, doesn't think Barry was a significant model for the children of healthy two-parent families. "He could have a bearing on attitudes," she said, "but these kids get their values more from a mother, father, aunt or uncle."

His behavior more clearly affected children from troubled homes, said Jeffrey Johnson, a drug-program consultant in the city. Johnson said that when young people talked with him about Barry's behavior, he used the opportunity to talk about how "adults can make mistakes." Children assume that adults are flawless or nearly so, he said, and situations such as the Vista "sting" and the ensuing trial are useful to teach a young person he "has to choose whom {he} will model {his} life after."

Paris McIntyre, a Hyattsville father, agreed. When news reports explored the background of Barry's ex-girlfriend Hazel Diane (Rasheeda) Moore, he said, he talked to his two teenaged daughters during what he called a "family devotion" about the wrong choices Moore had made in her life.

Certain images won't go away. The people I talked to remain disturbed by what they saw as an unsettling display of selfishness and an abundant lack of respect for others. They were distressed by Barry's videotaped sexual overtures to Moore at the Vista Hotel, and also troubled by what they saw as Moore's persistence in persuading Barry to smoke crack cocaine. They cited prosecution efforts to spend whatever it cost to convict the mayor on relatively minor charges, a stream of unsavory witnesses paraded in front of Barry's family, Barry's portrayal of the indictment as motivated by race and his later characterization of the outcome as a victory.

"A lot of people are saying {Barry} didn't seem sorry," said Wendell Jenifer, coordinator of the city-wide Youth At Risk program.

Kent Amos said he tries to impress on young area residents how important it is for African-Americans to leave a legacy, to figure out "where you fit in the continuum and what you can do to contribute to that." The trial, said Amos, "did nothing toward legacy building . . . . The only rule was to win."

"What disturbed me the most was the aftermath," Amos continued. "This was an excellent opportunity for a man who said he had found his God and professes to be a leader to find a humble moment . . . . Ken Mundy's comments were more humbling, more gracious than the person who had done wrong and that was very difficult to interpret to the children." For parents whose children had had some previous experience with the law, the result of the trial was particularly poignant: One misdemeanor conviction, one acquittal and 12 counts -- including three felonies -- unresolved told them that Barry was treated differently from their families.

"One of the principles we believe is that we are responsible for our actions and we hold our children responsible for theirs," said a mother during a meeting of Toughlove, an anonymous support group of parents whose children suffer from substance abuse or behavior disorders. "One of the messages in this case was that Marion Barry was not held accountable in a court of law."

Said a father in the group: "I'm upset. We pushed our son through the court on a charge that the probation officer said wouldn't hold water."

"It has set us back a lot. A lot," said another mother.

Bob Hill, leader of this group, and other parents, pointed out to their children that Barry suffered some consequences: family embarrassment, voluntary departure from his political party, a decision not to run for a fourth term as mayor. But these were the consequences of publicity, not the courts.

And many of these parents believed that racial divisiveness in this country, exploited by Barry, impeded the gears of justice. The jurors got bogged down in racial terms "rather than the wrongfulness of {Barry's} acts," said psychologist Vanderpool.

Vincent Cohen, a Washington attorney, wrote in The Washington Post that "If the prosecutor had been elected by the citizens of the District of Columbia, Marion Barry would have been history."

Said child psychologist Pressley, "The message sent out about the justice system -- it would be hard to figure out a better way to disillusion kids."

Most of these adults could not let the Barry trial pass without discussing it with the children in their charge. Some conversations were casual, others more deliberate. Elementary school children asked their parents what they thought. Teenagers wanted to debate.

In some families, the discussion was more an exploration of various sides of the conflict. Deborah Vaughn, a nurse and PTA president at Malcolm X High School, said one of her sons believed Barry should have been tried and another felt the prosecution had gone too far. Vaughn said she didn't try to dissuade either son from his point of view but asked each to consider other opinions.

In other families, parents were more direct in expressing their own beliefs. "I told my girls, a person should pay for a crime, no matter what," said Johnny Davis. One of Davis's daughters then challenged him to put his ideas to work in the upcoming mayoral race.

Pressley, the psychologist, finds such conversations heartening and has encouraged parents and others to spend a lot of time with kids on the events of the last eight months.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for moral growth," he said, "a time to point out the consequences of wrong behavior. Talking to your kids says that you know they're juggling the variables, and that you are, too. In lots of ways you never stop worrying about these things."

Laura Stepp writes about religion and ethics for The Washington Post.