The government has been "lacksdaisical" in its enforcement of sex discrimination laws in the nations schools and has taken up to three years to investigate some compliants of discrimination, a women's rights group charged yesterday.

In a four-year period from 1972 to 1976, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights resolved only one-fifth of the 871 discrimination complaints it received and did "almost nothing" else to enforce the law, an 18-month study by the Project on Equal Education Rights said.

The study the most complete analysis to date of the government's efforts to deal with sex discrimination, also asserted:

The Ford administration, fearful of political fallout, declared a moratorium on enforcing sensitive sex discrimination cases 2 1/2 months before the 1976 election, virtually halting all enforcement activities until months after the Republicans left office. The OCR, the study said, "didn't even answer its mail."

More than a third of the complaints filed under Title IX of the 1972 education act take three years or more to resolve, "Intervention, when it came, tended to be too late to help the people who asked for it," the report said.

Most investigations are cursory, seldom involving much more than an exchange of letters with school officials.

The government has yet to cut funds off from a single school district where it has issued a finding of sex discrimination.

Top bureaucrats continue to delay making basic policy decisions on issues they think might stir up controversy. Unresolved policy issues range from basic employment questions to more esoteric subjects like deciding if rules prohibiting boys from wearing their hair long constitute sex discrimination.

PEER is part of the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. It based it conclusions on a review of every discrimination complaint filed with OCR field offices from 1972 to October, 1976.

David S. Tatel, director of the civil rights office, said yesterday the study "is an essentially accurate analysis" of the period it zeroed in on. But, the study, he said, "failed to take into account the deliberate and continual efforts" of the Carter administration "to put an end to sex discrimination."

Tatel said his office in recent months has increased its investigative staff and reduced its backing of unanswered Title IX inquiries from 410 to 100.

According to various sources in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, this backlog, which PEER says totaled 600 letters, resulted from a moratorium put on sex discrimination bases by former OCR director Martin Gerry. In a memo sent Sept. 21, 1976, Gerry ordered OCR regional offices to forward all such cases normally handled in the field, to Washington for review.

This was an effort to head off any politically embarrassing decisions by field officers who in previous months had ruled that a boys' choir in Connecticut and a father-and-son dinner in Arizona violated sex discrimination laws.

When the Carter administration took over in January, hundreds of unresolved sex discrimination complaints and inquiries were found in two cardboard boxes in an unused room at HEW headquarters, sources said. Efforts to answer these weren't begun until June.

The civil rights office is a part of HEW Tatel and other officials have repeatedly claimed that staff shortages have hamstrung enforcement activities and made it impossible to deal with all complaints filed. An agency operating plan drawn up last month maintained that a typical discrimination case takes 44 days to investigate.

"That's absurd and ridicilous," retorts PEER director Holly Knox. The failure to deal with discrimination complaints, she said, "is a combination of indifference and a desire to avoid controversy. According to HEW statson. That's not unmanageable, especially when all the investigating they do is to write letters. An investigator should be able to write nine letters a year without any trouble."

The study said HEW did little in the sex discrimination area other than handle complaints. In four years, it said, the civil rights office completed independent checks on just 12 of the nation's 16,000 school districts, and did not follow up surveys it conducted.

The cases PEER analyzed involved schools in every state in the union. A third of the complaints charged discrimination in employment, 22 per cent in athletics and 13 per cent school rules. It took an average of 14 months to resolve a complaint.

Scores, however, were never acted upon. One girl in Livonia, Mich., for instance, wrote HEW a letter Sept. 9, 1973, complaining that her principal wouldn't let her take an industrial arts course because "all the shop teachers refuse to teach females because they are prejudiced and feel women should stick to home, etc."

She didn't receive a reply until three years later, after she had graduated from high school.

When a mother in Milestone, Mont., complained that her two sons had been expelled from school because of their long hair, she was told the government was trying to make up its mind on whether that represented discrimination or not. School officials, she said, harassed her family so much that they left town. "It was said people with long hair raped and killed and were on dope," she wrote.

That was in 1975. Two years later, the U.S. government has yet to come up with a policy on long hair.